For 8th straight year, no hurricanes hit Florida


Published: Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 6:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 6:51 p.m.

In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma grew into one of the strongest storms ever recorded. It approached the Yucatan Peninsula packing 185-mph winds and eventually turned east, slamming South Florida with winds of about 120 mph.

Wilma is now a memory. She was the last major hurricane to strike the United States — and the last hurricane of any kind to hit Florida.

That eight-year span is Florida's longest hurricane-free streak in recorded weather history.

Several tropical storms have damaged Florida since 2005, including Debby, which unleashed record rainfall and flooding in North Florida in June 2012. But there have been no hurricanes.

Experts attribute 2013's weak hurricane season, which officially ended on Saturday, to a variety of atmospheric conditions.

Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and National Hurricane Center spokesman, said there was widespread sinking air throughout a large area of the Atlantic Ocean. And in many cases, dry air was pulled inside developing storms to reduce the threat.

That was accompanied by an "above-normal wind shear over the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico — conditions that acted to offset otherwise more conducive climate patterns," Feltgen wrote in an email.

Another bizarre reason for the slow season: Sand kicked up from the Sahara Desert during an extreme monsoon season infiltrated severe thunderstorms leaving Africa's west coast, where many hurricanes are born. Such sand influences can keep storms from developing into major hurricanes.

And finally, there was above-normal wind shear in the Atlantic. That sheared off cloud tops, keeping them from growing stronger.

Only one tropical storm, and no hurricanes, made landfall in the United States since the season started on June 1.

There were 13 named storms in 2013, only two of them hurricanes. The only storm that made landfall was Tropical Storm Andrea, which skirted Tampa and hit the Big Bend of Florida in June.

Feltgen noted that while 13 named storms is about average for a season, the number of hurricanes (two) fell far below the average of six.

And both of this year's hurricanes were a minimal Category 1, the first time since 1968 that a Category 2 storm or greater failed to form during a season.

The 2013 season had the fewest number of hurricanes since 1982. It was also the first year since 1994 that a major hurricane did not form somewhere in the Atlantic basin or Gulf of Mexico.

The second-longest hurricane-free streak in Florida was 1980-84, during Florida's 25-year dormant phase.

From 1967 to 1991, Florida only had eight hurricanes and eight tropical storms.

Since June 1, 2006, only nine named tropical storms have struck the Sunshine State.

Al Sandrik, a hurricane expert and the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said upper-level steering patterns have kept hurricanes away since October 2006.

"The upper-level patterns have either steered them north into the Atlantic (Ocean) or west into the Gulf of Mexico," he said.

Experts say the longer it goes before a hurricane strikes the state, the more they worry about complacency of residents.

Dave Donnelly, Alachua County emergency management director, said though the hurricane season has come to an end, residents need to remain prepared.

"It's time to replenish those disaster kits," he said. That's because the winter brings wildfire season and the spring brings threats of tornadoes and then, "come June 1, anything can happen."

After the quiet 2013 season, a question looms: How has Florida avoided a hurricane making landfall for eight years, even during many active years?

The last time Florida was affected by hurricanes was 2005, when four struck. That included two major hurricanes: Dennis in July and Wilma in October.

That year followed another very busy year. In 2004, Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne slammed the Sunshine State.

Frances crossed North Central Florida in late August as a tropical storm. A few weeks later, in early September, Hurricane Jeanne also passed over as a tropical storm.

Officials say a storm's track to Florida is affected by numerous factors.

Tropical storms and hurricanes are like feathers in a breeze. Their paths are influenced by ridges of high pressure or fronts zipping southward across the United States.

Storms would remain stationary if not for these influences. They follow the paths of least resistance, pushed by upper-level weather patterns that can shift at a moment's notice. That's why predicting storms is so difficult.

One main steering mechanism is a ridge of high pressure that experts refer to as the Bermuda-Azores High, which features clockwise rotation around its center.

The location of the high in the Atlantic Ocean influences a storm's path and whether it affects Florida.

If the high forms in the far eastern Atlantic, it often keeps storms from hitting the U.S.

In that scenario, storms are pulled clockwise around the high. They first move westerly, then northwesterly, toward the U.S. East Coast, and often north out to sea before making landfall.

But if that same high forms closer to the United States, the clockwise steering pattern may steer a tropical cyclone into the eastern United States, oftentimes Florida.

If it forms even closer to Florida, the high could steer hurricanes south of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sometimes when a hurricane approaches Florida, a trough, or a front, can also slide down from the north across the continental U.S. And that front can push storms away from the coast, according to meteorologists.

Contact Joe Callahan at 867-4113.

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