Jun 3, 2016

The Arbitrary Definition of the Current Atlantic Major Hurricane Landfall Drought: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society: Vol 97, No 5

by
Robert E. Hart, Daniel R. Chavas, and Mark P. Guishard
,
Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS)

A major hurricane [96+ knots (kt; 1 kt = 0.51 m s–1) of maximum sustained wind] has not made landfall in the United States since Wilma (2005). Recent elegant stochastic–statistical modeling estimates the return period of a 9-yr streak for this metric as 177 yr, suggesting extraordinary rarity, especially in the context of the length of the record (1851–2014). Current awareness of the drought is increased given that the 2015 hurricane season is expected to be suppressed from El Niño and the recent anniversaries of several noteworthy landfalls.

Yet, here we show that the significance or even existence of the current 9-yr drought is highly dependent on the metric used. Acknowledging that wind intensity estimates are binned every 5 kt and have approximate 10-kt uncertainty, we examine the same record using landfall thresholds of 95–105 kt. Using 105-kt landfall, 1993–2003 becomes a previously unreported yet more remarkable 11-yr drought and 1981–88 becomes an 8-yr drought. Further, landfall minimum sea level pressure is more reliably estimated than maximum sustained wind speed. For landfall intensities stronger than 960 hPa (a climatological threshold for 100 kt), the current drought disappears because of Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012). A coastline-independent yet nearby proximity metric is tested and reveals a nonexistent drought.

Accordingly, this study suggests the following: 1) Caution is advised when identifying a hurricane drought and its historical significance. 2) Using hurricane landfall statistics to infer a climate signal is fraught with issues (threshold, coastline, and potentially nonscientific contributions), regardless of intensity metric. 3) From a societal context, human and financial losses matter most, and Irene [2011; $8 billion (U.S. dollars)] and Sandy (2012; $88 billion) occurred during the current drought.