NOAA 2023 hurricane season forecast: We really need El Niño to form this year

Kimberly Miller
Palm Beach Post

Two titans of air and sea are massing in the days ahead of the June 1 hurricane season in an unprecedented collision that could mean tropical salvation or potential ruin this year for storm-vulnerable states, including high target areas in Florida.

A meaty storm-killing El Niño and an Atlantic Ocean brimming with unusually warm hurricane fuel is a combination not previously seen this clearly in credible climate records, according to hurricane experts.

The dueling influences are leading to uncertainty as to what the future holds through Nov. 30, even as most forecasts, including one released Thursday by the Climate Prediction Center, call for a near-normal to slightly below-normal hurricane season.

NOAA 2023 hurricane season forecast

The Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is predicting 12 to 17 named storms and five to nine hurricanes. Of the hurricanes, one to four could be major Category 3 strength storms or higher.

An average hurricane season has 14 named storms and seven hurricanes. Of the seven hurricanes, three are Category 3 or higher.

What other 2023 hurricane season forecasts predict

“We’ve had strong El Niños and record warm Atlantics, but the combination we just haven’t seen in the recent records,” said Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State University meteorologist specializing in seasonal hurricane forecasts. “One is pulling one way, one is pulling the other. Who wins?”

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Sea-surface temperatures in the yawning stretch of ocean west of Africa through the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico are all above normal by as much as 5 degrees in some small pockets but mostly between 1 and 3 degrees.

Klotzbach said the warm temperatures are more akin to what would be expected deep into June and are likely the result of slack trade winds that lowered the amount of cooling evaporation and cloud formation.

“If you look at the end of February, the water was a little warmer, then it really escalated and by the end of March, it was like, ‘Oh crap,’ ” Klotzbach said. “Thank God we have an El Niño coming. Otherwise I’d be forecasting 12 hurricanes.”

CSU’s forecast, which will be updated June 1, calls for 13 named storms, including six hurricanes.

2023 hurricane season names

Matthew Rosencrans, lead hurricane outlook forecaster for the Climate Prediction Center, echoed Klotzbach's bemusement on the rival powers manipulating this hurricane season.

"El Niño versus the (warm) sea surface temperatures is a pretty rare condition to have going on at the same time," he said Thursday. "It's a clash between those two big features."

What is El Niño and how does El Niño impact hurricane season

But as the Atlantic warms, El Niño is also mustering strength. This month, the Climate Prediction Center gave El Niño a 93% chance of forming and persisting through peak hurricane season into winter. It could be declared any day with a May-through-July timeframe given by climate scientists.

Westerly winds in the equatorial Pacific Ocean juiced by Super Typhoon Mawar near the Mariana Islands and high oceanic heat content means “that a potentially significant El Niño is on the horizon,” according to the Climate Prediction Center. 

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During El Niño, warm water that has been pushed into the western reaches of the Pacific Ocean sloshes back east. That movement shifts where deep tropical thunderstorms form. The exploding storms, whose cloud tops can touch the jet stream, disrupt upper air flows.

In summer, El Niño creates wind shear that chops up Atlantic tropical cyclones. In winter, El Niño nudges the jet stream south giving Florida cooler, wetter winters.

“It’s been coming on pretty strong throughout the spring months,” AccuWeather senior meteorologist Mike Doll said about El Niño.

El Niño becomes official when water temperatures across a specific portion of the Pacific reach about a degree above average.

But Doll cautioned El Niño is not foolproof in preventing damaging hurricanes. The atmosphere can take advantage of a lull in wind shear to brew up a devastating storm. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 is one of the most notorious examples of a tropical cyclone wreaking havoc during an El Niño, even though just seven named storms formed that year.

The busy 2004 storm season, notable for hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, also was an El Niño year.

What's the hurricane forecast, prediction for Florida?

Although NOAA doesn’t predict where hurricanes will make landfall each season, Colorado State University is using a new method to determine the probability of a storm tracking within 50 miles of an area using NOAA's Historical Hurricane Tracks website.

Sticking out like a sore thumb into the soupy Atlantic, Florida has the highest vulnerability in the United States with an 87% chance this year that it will be impacted by a named storm, according to CSU. There is a 58% chance for a hurricane and a 30% chance that a major hurricane will reach Sunshine State shores.

The top five counties in Florida most likely to have impacts from a named storm this season are Monroe (54%), Broward (44%), Miami-Dade (45%), Collier (44%) and Palm Beach (44%).

Since 2000, seven hurricanes have tracked within 100 miles of West Palm Beach. The most recent include 2019's Hurricane Dorian, 2017's Hurricane Irma and 2016's Hurricane Matthew. Others include Wilma (2005), Katrina (2005), Jeanne (2004) and Frances (2004).

Following Florida, the top five states most vulnerable to storms this season are Louisiana, Georgia, Texas and Alabama.

AccuWeather hurricane experts also expect the region from Florida north through the Carolinas to be at a higher risk this season than other parts of the country based on past years where the conditions preceding hurricane season were similar.

“Living along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts means living with hurricanes,” wrote Fox Weather hurricane expert Bryan Norcross in his Hurricane Intel blog. “There is nothing to do but be prepared.”

Kimberly Miller is a veteran journalist for The Palm Beach Post, part of the USA Today Network of Florida. She covers real estate, weather and how growth affects South Florida's environment. Subscribe to The Dirt for a weekly real estate roundup. If you have news tips, please send them to Help support our local journalism, subscribe today. 

Damage to Ft. Myers marinad near bridge to Ft. Myers Beach after Hurricane Ian on September 29 2022.