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'It only takes one storm': 2022 Atlantic hurricane season was historic

By Adriana Navarro, Accuweather.com
1/11
Boats are upended as Hurricane Ian damaged came ashore with 150-mph winds in Fort Myers, Fla., in September. File Photo by Thom Baur/UPI
Boats are upended as Hurricane Ian damaged came ashore with 150-mph winds in Fort Myers, Fla., in September. File Photo by Thom Baur/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Upon the mention of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, two hurricanes will likely come to mind. The double strike on Florida by major Hurricane Ian followed by late-season Hurricane Nicole all but defined the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season for the contiguous United States.

However, from the perspective of AccuWeather forecasters, there were a few more defining traits from this odd season.

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Unusually quiet August

This season had a sluggish start compared to 2020 and 2021 and ended with 14 named systems, eight of which strengthened into hurricanes.

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While it's not unusual to have lulls in the hurricane season, the long stint of no named storms leading up to the peak of hurricane season was enough to make the top of the list of seasonal highlights for many AccuWeather forecasters.

"Given the La Niña conditions, which favor tropical development, I was surprised by the unusual quiet period during much of July and all of August, especially the second half of August when things should really start ramping up in a typical hurricane season," said senior meteorologist Bob Smerbeck. Smerbeck has contributed to hurricane forecasts at AccuWeather for at least 25 years through radio and TV forecasts for clients as well as track and impact forecasting.

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For only the third time on record -- and the first time in 25 years -- there were no named storms during the month of August. The other years where this occurred were 1961 and 1997.

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"The abnormally strong high-pressure areas in Europe and the western U.S. during July into August may have been a big influence" for the pause in activity, AccuWeather hurricane expert Dan Kottlowski said. "The monster upper-level high that built over western Europe in July caused a large area of dry, stable air to slide from western Europe southward into the tropics."

This dry, stable air combined with a large area of vertical wind shear across the south-central Atlantic suppressed tropical development during the months of August into September before the pattern broke down in October, Kottlowski added.

The basin would remain vacant of named storms from July 3 to Aug. 30 when Danielle formed in the northern Atlantic. August 2022 became only the third season on record during which no tropical storms developed.

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"All of a sudden, it caught fire right around Sept. 1 and stayed very busy most of the rest of the season," said AccuWeather senior meteorologist John Feerick, who has worked at AccuWeather for 19 years.

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During those years he has served as a shift coordinator -- the role of coordinating with forecasters on the operations floor -- at the State College, Pa., headquarters and has been involved with forecasting tropical systems. "Usually there are pulses of activity, but this year seemed like one big pulse and not much outside of that."

He added that a slow hurricane season such as this one has been hard to come by over the last couple of years. The hurricane seasons of 2019 through 2021 had been especially busy, with records seeming to fall in 2020 with each new storm.

Ahead of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, Kottlowski and the tropical forecasting team had said the season would be less active compared to 2021. Still, he added the setup of the dry, stable air shifting into the Atlantic to ultimately contribute to a stall in the season was "by far the most perplexing aspect of the 2022 season."

"We have had slow seasonal starts before," Kottlowski said, "but not during a strengthening La Niña. So this dry, stable blob is something we will need to study for future tropical outlooks."

The team had also warned that it "felt strongly about" a higher-than-normal chance for a major hit on the United States and Puerto Rico -- both of which played out through Hurricanes Ian and Fiona.

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Florida's west coast

AccuWeather published an update on the Atlantic hurricane season forecast ahead of the official peak of hurricane season on Sept. 10, with Kottlowski warning that it would only take one intense hurricane to define the season.

"If one of these systems gets into the Gulf, watch out," he had said at the time.

Then, on Sept. 24, Ian was named.

"Even in a season that some people may call 'quiet,' it's important to remember that all it takes is one landfall or even one brush of the coast to cause serious danger to lives and property," said AccuWeather meteorologist Mary Gilbert, who has worked at AccuWeather since 2019 and was the shift coordinator when Hurricane Nicole made landfall later during the season.

"Unfortunately, we saw that play out in full force this season in the United States with Hurricane Ian," Gilbert said.

The storm steered across Cuba, surviving the mountainous terrain of the island, which often causes tropical systems to weaken, before entering the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The storm exploded in power, undergoing rapid intensification before slamming into southwest Florida as a high-end Category 4 hurricane.

In Lee County, where Ian had made its first U.S. landfall over the barrier islands, at least 62 people died, according to the Nov. 16 update from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. In Florida as a whole, Ian killed at least 139 people.

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The number of deaths, the majority of which were people over age 65, according to an NBC News analysis, has directed criticism toward Lee County officials over if they provided residents with sufficient warning to evacuate. Officials along much of the coastline had ordered residents to evacuate on Sept. 26. Lee County officials issued the evacuation notice on Sept. 27, the day before Ian made landfall. The county officials had been "pondering" the decision, waiting to see how the forecast would evolve overnight, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

After a relatively quiet season, that one storm defined the 2022 hurricane season for southwest Florida.

"It only takes one storm," AccuWeather meteorologist Isaac Longley recalled forecasters repeating throughout the slow moments of the season. Having worked with the company since the 2018 hurricane season, he has been involved with live radio covering impactful hurricanes like Dorian and Hanna, but the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season was the first that he was heavily involved with tropical predictions.

"That message stuck with me until the moment Ian made landfall," he said. "Sure enough, Ian turned out to be that 'one storm' that ended up devastating southwest Florida, a place I know all too well."

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Longley has close family in the area, and as Ian barreled toward the coast, the hurricane presented a personal concern. Due to the track of the storm, his family was spared from the worst of the impacts.

But in Fort Myers Beach, one of the harder-hit areas, photos of the town showed beachfront properties scattered like matchsticks across the sand. The 150-mph winds had pried up roofs, barrelled through walls and ushered in towering storm surges that flooded homes.

Damage survey teams from the National Weather Service found the highest water mark from Ian's storm surge at Fort Myers Beach, measuring 15 feet above the normal high-water level, though the waves would have sloshed above that mark. This discovery places Hurricane Ian's storm surge on par with other devastating storms from recent years, including hurricanes Laura and Michael, which ushered in a storm surge of up to 18 feet along the Louisiana coast and 15 feet at Mexico Beach, Fla.

By the time Ian had torn through Florida, emerged over the Atlantic and curved westward to slam the South Carolina coast, spawning severe weather as it made that trek, it had caused enough damage to become the 15th billion-dollar disaster for the year 2022, according to NOAA.

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The total damage and economic loss from the storm was estimated to be between $180 billion and $210 billion, according to AccuWeather founder and CEO Joel N. Myers.

"The damage done by Ian to many Floridian communities was absolutely catastrophic," Gilbert said. "Even residents that avoided the worst of Ian's wrath still had to deal with some impacts as a result of the powerful storm."

Farther inland, Orlando mostly avoided the damaging winds, but the rainfall totals recorded were nothing short of astounding. Orlando International Airport received 13.20 inches of rain from Ian -- over twice the typical September rainfall average of 6.37 inches. It was enough precipitation for the month to surpass 1945 as the wettest September on record in Orlando. Other amateur rain gauges in the area reported more than 20 inches.

As AccuWeather meteorologist Danielle Knittle was reporting live on WFLA, an Orlando radio station that partners with AccuWeather, the radio broadcasters that she spoke with before and after Ian struck were "just blown away by the amount of rain forecast and then what actually did fall," Knittle recounted. "They didn't recall hearing such high rainfall amounts expected before."

Knittle has worked at AccuWeather for 12 hurricane seasons, starting in June 2010, and has served as shift coordinator during the season for the past two.

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Double hit to Florida

Roughly six weeks after Hurricane Ian barreled through Florida, flattening homes and collapsing sections of causeways on the west coast and causing significant erosion damage on the east coast, Hurricane Nicole dealt the final blow to many East Florida waterfront properties. Drone footage after the storm showed homes in communities like Wilbur-By-The-Sea sitting in a precarious situation after back-to-back hurricanes eroded the shoreline. Nicole had finished what Ian had started, carving staggering cliffs dangerously close to the foundation of structures from homes to hotels.

Kate Rose's house was one such home. Following Nicole, the house's walls still held strong, the windows unbroken at first glance. An autumn wreath of leaves and miniature gourds still decorated her front door as summer gave way to fall.

But at the back of the house, her patio had crumbled, dropping sharply off into the ocean. Dozens of coastal buildings were declared unsafe by county and municipal building inspectors in Volusia County following Hurricane Nicole's landfall.

AccuWeather released a preliminary estimate of the total damage and economic loss caused by Nicole shortly after the storm, placing the total between $5 billion and $7 billion. While it had devastated beachside properties, the storm had not produced the widespread catastrophic damage that Hurricane Ian had caused six weeks earlier. In fact, AccuWeather estimated that the total damage and economic loss from Nicole could amount to just 3% of that from Ian.

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It's not unusual for Florida to take multiple hits during a hurricane season, but the frequency this year amid the limited number of U.S. landfalls this season stood out to AccuWeather meteorologist Grady Gilman. The 2022 Atlantic Hurricane season was his second one at AccuWeather and the first one where he played a large role in tropical forecasting.

Even before Ian and Nicole slammed into Florida, an earlier-season storm had impacted the Sunshine State this season. A tropical depression passed over the southern portion of the state before being named Tropical Storm Alex on June 5 once it was back in the Atlantic, then Ian and Nicole slammed into the southwest and eastern Florida coasts, respectively. The only other state to see a landfall this season was South Carolina, where Ian crashed ashore as a Category 1 hurricane and Tropical Storm Colin formed just before landfall.

Nicole's November landfall

Hurricane season officially begins on June 1 and ends on Nov. 30, and even though this season's activity had a slow start, the same couldn't be said for the tail end. While the month still falls under hurricane season, it isn't well known for its tropical activity as the warm ocean waters begin to cool and conditions become less favorable for development. Hurricane Eta from 2020, Otto from 2016 and Ida from 2009 are a few of the more recent examples of November hurricanes now joined by Nicole.

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The system had an unusual beginning. Other than forming at the start of November, it started out as a subtropical storm, a cold-core system that attained some tropical characteristics. What it lacked in rainfall, it made up for in its wind field.

While Nicole transitioned into a tropical system, the spanning size of its wind field remained. The eye of the storm was equally as monstrous, estimated to be about 60 to 80 miles in diameter, according to Gilbert. She added that the eyewall of a hurricane is typically only 20 to 40 miles in diameter, and in comparison, Hurricane Ian's eyewall was about 35 miles across at its widest.

After the edge of Nicole's eyewall started to crash ashore over Florida's east coast around 1 a.m. ET Nov. 10, the center didn't make landfall for another two hours, the Category 1 making official landfall at 3 a.m. on North Hutchinson Island, Fla.

Despite never obtaining major hurricane status, Nicole's track was enough of a reminder of tragedy from past hurricanes. The storm took a track similar to that of Hurricane Dorian, a powerful Category 5 hurricane that devastated the Bahamian islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama.

Nicole passed over Great Abaco Island as a tropical storm, strengthening into a Category 1 hurricane shortly after. While it caused extensive flooding to the island, Nicole caused far less havoc than Dorian had in 2019.

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The hurricane continued to travel northward, carving through Florida and trekking up the Eastern Seaboard toward New York. While the thought of a tropical wind and rainstorm barreling through the state brought back reminders of Ida, Nicole's track through the state took a path farther inland and delivered significantly less rainfall to the area.

Longest-lived hurricane

On Sept. 18, Puerto Ricans braced for impact. For the first time since Hurricane Maria in 2017, a hurricane made landfall on the island.

With peak maximum sustained winds of 130 mph, Hurricane Fiona was one of the strongest storms to churn in the Atlantic basin during the 2022 hurricane season behind Hurricane Ian. However, it had devastated Puerto Rico long before it reached its peak.

Fiona struck the island as a Category 1 hurricane -- a far cry from the intensity of Hurricane Maria, which struck the island as a high-end Category 4 hurricane -- but its impacts were enough to tear open old wounds from the storm. More than 20 inches of rain fell from the storm, causing flooding damage across the island. The destruction included a temporary metal bridge that had been built over the Guaonica River in Utuado following Hurricane Maria. Videos show the bridge clinging to the roads it connected before the mounting floodwaters tore the structure from its foundation.

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Ponce, a city on the southern coast of the island, measured 31.22 inches of rainfall within a 72-hour period, rivaling the 31.34 inches of rain Hurricane Maria delivered within the same time frame, according to AccuWeather and NWS figures.

Fiona continued to gain wind intensity as it traveled, slamming Turks and Caicos as a Category 3 hurricane before curving northward and sideswiping Bermuda as its wind intensity fluctuated. While it would transition into an extratropical cyclone as it traveled farther north, there were a few stints throughout its journey as a hurricane where Fiona carved through the Atlantic at Category 4 strength before charging for the coastline of Canada.

The cyclone slammed into Nova Scotia's Casno Peninsula with sustained winds of up to 100 mph, the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane, as one of the strongest storms in Canadian history based on barometric pressure. A weather station at Hart Island measured a sea level pressure of 27.54 in mercury (932.7 millibars), and the East Chedabucto Bay buoy measured 27.55 in mercury (932.8 millibars) -- some of the lowest barometric pressure readings from a cyclone in Canadian history, according to Canada's weather service, Environment Canada.

Overall, Fiona was the longest-lived storm of the season, spending a little more than nine days as a named storm. At least five of those days were spent as a hurricane. Earl, Danielle and Ian all lasted for at least seven days each as a named storm.

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Meteorologists gauge the overall intensity of a hurricane season through a metric known as ACE, or the accumulated cyclone energy, of each named storm in a hurricane season. Both the longevity of a named storm as well as its intensity play a role in determining this calculation.

By Sept. 16, the 2022 ACE value stood at only 31.1 largely due to the contributions from hurricanes Danielle and Earl, but Fiona added 26.3 to the ACE value, boosting the total to 57.9. However, that figure still trailed the normal ACE value, 84.4, through that point of the Atlantic hurricane season, according to Colorado State University. By the end of the season, the ACE value totaled 95.1 -- well below the normal ACE value of 123.

Other notable storms

Before Colin became the first named storm to make landfall over the contiguous United States, meteorologists were holding their breath during the development of Tropical Storm Alex.

The storm approached southwest Florida as a tropical depression, on the verge of tropical storm strength, but wind shear hindered any meaningful organization. Even as a depression, the storm triggered flash flooding across South Florida. It strengthened into Alex only after moving off the east coast of Florida and then drifting off into the Atlantic, where it dissipated.

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Another oddity of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season was Hurricane Bonnie. While the storm never strengthened into anything more than a tropical storm in the Atlantic basin, nearly losing even that status as it crossed over Nicaragua, it was quick to reorganize once the system reached the waters of the East Pacific.

A little over 24 hours after entering the new basin, Bonnie was officially the third hurricane of the East Pacific season on the evening of July 3 and the basin's first major hurricane on July 5 with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph.

It was the first of two storms that would cross into the Pacific, the next being Hurricane Julia, something that "does not frequently happen, let alone twice in a year," Gilman said.

At the end of August, the last storm to roam the basin had been Tropical Storm Colin, a short-lived storm that transitioned from a depression into a tropical storm as it made landfall near Hunting Island, S.C., on July 1. While unconventional, it was the first U.S. landfall of the season -- and the shortest-lived named storm of the season, lasting for less than a day.

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