Have we seen this hurricane season before?

Flooding from Harvey. Image from click2houston.com
Flooding from Harvey. Image from click2houston.com

On Wednesday, I blogged about the newest hurricane forecast from Dr. Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University. He is forecasting 17 storms of which eight become hurricanes and four become major (Cat. 3) hurricanes.

A lot of research goes into his prediction and, as I discussed, a couple of important factors are the state of La Niña/El Niño and the temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean waters. Specifically, presence of La Niña = a busy season, and warmer than normal sea surface temperatures = a busy season. We have both a weak La Niña and warm water, thus, his forecast of 17-8-4 is above the average season of 14-7-3.

In addition to the many parameters Dr. Klotzbach pores over, he also examines the historical climate record. What years in the past looked a lot like this year from a climate perspective and just what kind of tropical activity did THOSE years have? Perhaps something is to be gleaned from the past. In his tropical meteorology report, he says specifically:

“Certain years in the historical record have global oceanic and atmospheric trends which are similar to 2021. These years also provide useful clues as to likely levels of activity that the forthcoming 2021 hurricane season may bring. For this early April extended range forecast, we determine which of the prior years in our database have distinct trends in key environmental conditions which are similar to current February/March 2021 conditions and, more importantly, projected August–October 2021 conditions.”

So what years compare to this year? Here they are:

Those years look familiar...

The years above had similar climate states as we find today, and in those years, the storm count ranged from 13-19 with the hurricane count ranging from 7-10. Such comparison to 2021 gives rise to the 17-8 number from Colorado State.

So what?

If you are new to the area then these analog years might not have much weight with you, but if you are a long-timer, then they will ring a bell. And it’s not a great sound, this bell.


This year is more personal than anything. We had little in the way of tropical weather here in Texas despite a season with 13 storms and 9 hurricanes. However, North Carolina suffered the wrath of two major hits that year, Bertha and Fran. I chased both of them...”Billingsley Meets Bertha” and then “Frank Meets Fran”. So for me, this year was a standout. But quiet for Houston (and Kingwood, which was annexed that year!).


We weren’t so lucky this year. The first storm of the season was ours: Tropical Storm Allison. A week of rain in early June and then the storm parked itself to our west on Friday evening, June 8, and it rained for twelve hours straight. In fact, 36-42″ of rain fell with major flooding across the region. About $5 billion in damage and 22 souls taken, Allison was the first tropical storm name to ever be retired (ironically, Allison had replaced the name Alicia, which hit us in 1983).


Then came Ike. This hurricane arrived Sept. 13, the same weekend that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and decimated the Bolivar Peninsula with a 14′ storm surge, which went as high as 21′ at Bacliff and San Leon. Galveston fared better, relatively speaking, but the flooding on the island was horrendous and you can still see the 7-9′ measurements around the Strand. About $35 billion dollars in damage from Ike, which took 195 souls.


Generally speaking, 2011 was an easy one tropically, as most of the storms stayed east over the Atlantic. We had a very weak storm called Don run into South Padre Island which weakened to a no-wind storm with less than 2′ of storm surge. No wind, no waves, no nothing. Technically, we got a strike. What we didn’t get was RAIN that year. Our drought lasted all summer with 100° or better almost every day. Texas lost 1/10 of its trees (500 million) and we still see the wildfire scars in Bastrop County. While no tropical devastation occurred, we had the worst drought since the 1950s.


What can I say? Hurricane Harvey strengthened quickly off the Texas coast in late August, moved ashore and stalled north of Victoria. Relentless rain pushed weekend totals of 36″ to 60″ with deadly results. Harvey is a storm none of us will ever forget.


So where does that leave us? With more questions than answers. We are in a drought right now and with similar conditions to 2011, does that indicate we’ll see more drought in the future? Long-term forecasts indicate we will. Both 2011 and 1996 brought us little from the tropics. On the other hand 2001, 2008 and 2017 brought our worst, most horrible, deadly tropical systems since 1983. We shall see where it goes, but I find all this intriguing and, if nothing else, another practical reason to be prepared for anything this year. The global climate is ripe for a busy hurricane season, and that includes us.


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About the Author:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with three decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.