So far, it has been a quiet tropical storm season in the Atlantic.
We’ve had one minimal hurricane that dumped a good deal of rain along the Gulf Coast, but that’s been about it. There have been several depressions that formed, but they fizzled out before they developed into large storms.
This is the time of year when things usually get hot, when tropical waves come off Africa and slowly make their way across the Atlantic and small disturbances in the Caribbean turn into major hurricanes.
The peak of hurricane season occurs around Sept. 10. After that, activity drops off dramatically before the threat officially ends on Nov. 30.
Twenty years ago, climate change experts were predicting that there would be increased activity by now, that tropical systems would be more frequent and they would be stronger. It hasn’t happened. We have, in fact, had fewer strong windstorms than we have averaged during the past 100 years.
The most discernible difference in tropical systems now as opposed to those of the past is the amount of rainfall they drop. Tropical systems have always featured torrential downpours, but they have historically spread their rains over large areas as they move inland.
Now tropical systems seem to hit land and just sit, as happened in Louisiana and Mississippi several weeks ago, in the Houston area (Tropical Storm Harvey) in August 2017 and in the Carolinas (Hurricane Florence) last summer. They don’t get moved along by steering currents and pour abnormal amounts of rain on one area.
This is not only true of tropical systems, but also of thunderstorms and low-pressure systems. This summer, several thunderstorms developed over Southside Virginia and just stalled, remaining in the same general area for hours. The result was major flooding.
Within the past two week, cells over Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Richmond refused to move and ended up pouring as much as 5 inches of rain on parts of those areas.
These rain cells that don’t move seem to be the most significant aspect of climate change. This phenomenon occurred last year when parts of Virginia received record amounts of rain and they are occurring again this year.
It will be interesting to see what happens if we do get an intense tropical system in our area this year. Will it just sit and dump rain over one area as happened when Florence hit North Carolina last year?
Tropical systems that come up the East Coast often get caught up in cold fronts and move along at a fairly rapid pace. Hopefully Florence was just an anomaly and future storms will not rain themselves out over one area.
Virginia’s worst encounter with a tropical system raining itself out over a single area came in 1969, when Hurricane Camille, which made landfall along the Gulf Coast, moved northward and on Aug. 20 dumped an estimated 27–30 inches of rain on mountainous Nelson County. One hundred and thirteen people lost their lives in the black of that horrible night.
Prior to that, Virginia’s worst recorded encounter with a hurricane occurred on Oct. 15, 1954, when Hazel, born in the Caribbean, struck Wrightsville, N.C., with 140 mph winds and moved northward straight through Central Virginia.
I remember that well because it blew through on my eighth birthday with winds up to 80 mph. I can still hear the old tin roof rattling as my family huddled in the dark. That was a scary night.
Hurricane Hazel was in one way a godsend to Central Virginia because the area had been suffering through the second worst drought in recorded history (1930 being the worst). The rains from Hazel brought the land back to life and got the streams flowing again.
Virginia has had encounters with other tropical systems such as Fran, Hugo and Floyd, but Hazel and Camille were the worst. Still, all but Camille blew in and blew out in short order.
No one knows what this hurricane season will bring, but hopefully any system that strikes Virginia won’t just sit and rain itself out.
But that has been the pattern in recent years. Rain, not wind, has done the most damage.
And contrary to what folks might think, the farmers don’t need the rain.