Hurricane Beryl Isn’t a Freak Storm—It’s the Exact Nightmare Meteorologists Predicted

Hurricane Beryl Isn’t a Freak Storm—It’s the Exact Nightmare Meteorologists Predicted

Hurricane Beryl’s record-shattering intensification into a scale-topping Category 5 storm has stunned even the most seasoned experts. This storm is the nightmare scenario that meteorologists were worried about heading into the 2024 hurricane season.

All the warning indicators were blinking red in the weeks and months leading up to Beryl’s formation. The ocean is a veritable sauna ready to support any tropical disturbance that can get its act together this year.

The storm slammed into the islands of Grenada and Carriacou as a high-end Category 4 on Monday, July 1, bounding into the Caribbean, where it quickly grew into a Category 5. Forecasters expect Beryl to hit Jamaica as a major hurricane on Wednesday, July 3, before trekking over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula by July 4. The storm’s future is uncertain once it emerges into the Gulf of Mexico by this weekend.

Beryl’s litany of records would be impressive during the peak of hurricane season, but that isn’t even close yet. The hurricane was the Atlantic’s earliest Category 4 and Category 5 storm on record, beating out the historic duo of Dennis and Emily, respectively, from July 2005. It was also the farthest east in the tropical Atlantic we’ve ever seen a hurricane form so early in the season.

It’s a grim sign that something is seriously amiss in the Atlantic when a storm sets these historic milestones before we’ve even reached the July 4th holiday.

Fuelling the storm were some of the warmest sea surface temperatures ever observed during the months of June and July. Beryl traversed waters that were 28-30°C, providing more than enough energy to help the storm reach its full potential. This is the kind of heat you’d expect to see in the tropical Atlantic during the peak of the season in late August and early September.

Courtesy of Dennis Mersereau/NOAA

Hot water provides the energy hurricanes need to grow and thrive. Gusty winds evaporate a tiny bit of water off the sea’s surface. This warm water vapor rises into the clouds and releases its heat, which powers the thunderstorms that drive a hurricane’s intensity.

The Atlantic Ocean has been running a fever for the past year and a half. Sea surface temperatures across the ocean were the warmest on record for almost all of 2023 and continuing into 2024.

It’s not just that sea surface temperatures are running historically hot—that heat also stretches hundreds of meters deep beneath the surface.

Scientists use ocean heat content (OHC) to measure the depth of the heat through the ocean. A hurricane’s intense winds churn the ocean and force cooler waters from below to rise to the surface, leaving behind colder waters in the storm’s wake.

Higher OHC values limit the amount of cooling left behind by a storm, which allows the ocean to more easily support high-end storms later on down the line.

OHC values across the tropical Atlantic and the Caribbean far outpace normal values for this point in the summer, and that’s unlikely to change much as we inch closer to the peak of the season.

All that potential energy is what has meteorologists so worried heading into the rest of hurricane season. NOAA and Colorado State University both released aggressive seasonal forecasts calling for as many as two dozen named tropical storms this year.

Experts knew that the ocean would be capable of supporting frightening storms this year. The only surprise is that Beryl formed so soon. This early-season storm could serve as an omen for any storms that form later this year.

Courtesy of NOAA

Water temperatures are only part of the equation. A tropical cyclone is an exceptionally fragile structure that also requires vigorous and organized thunderstorms, low wind shear, ample moisture in the atmosphere, and few obstacles in its way in order to grow into a formidable beast.

Plenty of those ingredients are also expected throughout this hurricane season as forecasters watch the potential for La Niña to develop later this summer. La Niña patterns can make conditions more favorable for Atlantic storms by decreasing wind shear over the region.

It’s not just the number of storms that could form this year that has experts concerned, but their nature. Beryl just proved that any storm that takes root in a favorable environment could use those exceptionally warm waters to swirl into the record books. Any one of the many storms expected this season could have the opportunity to grow into a destructive hurricane that warrants extra attention and preparation.

Folks who live along or near the coast should use the relative quiet of the early hurricane season to prepare for whatever comes your way later this summer. Make sure you’ve got an emergency kit packed with supplies to deal with long-lasting utility outages. Plan what to do and where to go if your area is told to evacuate ahead of a storm.

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