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Arriving Ahead of Hurricane Season, Tropical Storm Arthur Brings Gusty Winds, Heavy Rainfall to North Carolina Coast

The storm formed as Typhoon Vongfong was bearing down on the Philippines, causing widespread damage.

Tropical Storm Arthur in an image released on May 18. (Image courtesy of NOAA)
Tropical Storm Arthur in an image released on May 18. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

The first named storm of the 2020 hurricane season skirted the coastline of North Carolina on Monday, but isn’t predicted to make landfall in the United States.

It’s possible that Tropical Storm Arthur, which formed Saturday off the coast of Florida and dropped record rains on that state before making its way up the coastline, may cut a path close to Bermuda, arriving in the area by Thursday morning, said Corene Matyas, a professor of Geography at the University of Florida.

Why the uncertainty? Matyas explained that, in her experience, climatology-based models “tend not to handle the early season storms as well because we don’t have as many of them on record.”

Last week, the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project predicted a more active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season than usual. In part, Matyas said, that’s because ocean waters are slightly warmer than usual, and there’s some indication that the Atlantic Basin this year will see either neutral or La Niña conditions, which would increase the likelihood of tropical storm activity.

Tropical Storm Arthur formed as Typhoon Vongfong was bearing down on the Philippines, killing at least one and damaging hundreds of homes and other structures.

But when asked whether the two storms were connected or indicated an active season, Matyas said, “I’m not sure, just because there’s a system in one part of the world, that you would link that toward activity in another part of the world.”

The Pacific storm season is longer, and tends to see more storms in a given year than the Atlantic Basin, she explained. In addition, since tropical cyclones have only been named since 2002, “we don’t have as good of a deep record on those particular systems…to really give a nice trend.”

Nor is there a clear indication that hurricane season is really moving earlier and earlier, as some have suggested. “Yes, we’ve had tropical storms in May before…but we really aren’t sure if there’s a trend of them occurring more in May,” said Stephen Strader, a professor of Geography and the Environment at Villanova University.

That’s not to say that changes aren’t occurring. For one thing, Strader said, there are clear indications that the season is lengthening – at the end, not the beginning. “In November, we’re seeing more of a robust change,” he said. “We’re seeing more storms at the end of the season than we really ever have.”

But contrary to what some believe, scientists don’t expect to see a big increase in the number of tropical storms. If anything, Strader said, the number of storms may decrease slightly.

However, “the ones that do occur, we expect them to be much stronger,” he said. In addition, there’s a relatively new tendency – caused by changes in the atmosphere possibly related to climate change – for storms to make landfall and then hover there, dumping catastrophic rainfall as they sit.

That most likely won’t be the case for Tropical Storm Arthur, Strader said, although the situation would be different if Arthur were located 150 miles to the west. “We’re not really expecting too much with this particular event, except for rip currents, strong, gusty winds, and heavy rains,” he said.

But he emphasized that even an off-the-coast storm isn’t without danger. Rip currents are dangerous for people heading to the beach during warming weather. Heavy rains and flooding are deadly even for people nowhere near the coastline.

“It’s not the wind that kills people. It’s the water,” Strader said. “I’m more concerned about people who live 50 miles from the ocean and they’re not as prepared.”

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