The 2006 Atlantic Hurricane season was a rather uneventful one for those tracking hurricanes and tropical storms year in, and year out. However, for those living along the coastline in the United States, it was a welcome break from the viciousness of the previous two seasons: 2004 and 2005. For only the second time in the twelve years of this latest multi-decadenal active cycle, the Atlantic had a season with below average activity. Only nine named storms, five hurricanes, and two major hurricanes formed with only three peak season systems: Ernesto, Florence, and Gordon being the only significant storms to threaten land. Despite the quick start, the 2006 season was done in by a sooner and stronger than expected El Niño episode, which left many to wonder about seasonal forecasts issued by Dr. William Gray, NOAA, and Accu-Weather.
Much to the relief of many coastal residents from Maine to Texas, the 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season did not live up to pre-season expectations. Back in late 2005, and early on in 2006, seasonal forecasters such as the highly regarded Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University expected another above average year. As a matter of fact, Gray's December 2005 forecast called for 17 named storms, which were the most he had ever predicted. Forecasters at NOAA had a similar assessment in their seasonal forecast as well. However, the development of a somewhat stronger than anticipated El Niño episode hampered formation in the Tropical Atlantic, and consequently, kept activity below normal for only the second time since 1995.
The 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season ended up with only nine named storms, five hurricanes, and two major hurricanes. Most of the storms, particularly, the hurricanes and major hurricanes formed over a six week span from the last two weeks of August to the end of September. Of those storms, only Ernesto was the most significant threat to the United States mainland as it made three landfalls: Florida Keys, South Florida, and North Carolina's Outer Banks. The only other system to threaten the coastline of the U.S. was Beryl back in July. Other significant systems such as Florence, Gordon, Helene, and Isaac were mostly problems for the shipping lanes although they did threaten islands such as Bermuda and the Azores. Hurricane Florence was the first hurricane to strike Bermuda since September 2003 when Hurricane Fabian, a Category Four storm with sustained winds of 140 mph, and minimum pressure of 27.94 inches of Hg, became the worst storm to hit that island in 50 years.
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Both Ernesto and Florence were minimal hurricanes with the former attaining hurricane status briefly before making the first of four total landfalls in Hispañola while the latter lasted as a hurricane much longer, and ultimately had sustained winds as high as 90 miles per hour. Florence created some rough surf along the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Coasts of the United States as it passed to the east following its departure from Bermuda. Hurricaneville staff managed to capture some of this wave activity along the Jersey Shore at Sandy Hook on video. Meanwhile, Ernesto brought gusty winds and heavy rains to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
In portions of Maryland, winds gusted as high as 90 mph while in Cape May, a coastal community at the tip of South Jersey, had winds reach hurricane force. Although the storm slowed somewhat in its trek up the Eastern Seaboard, Ernesto brought winds as high as 40 mph, and rain totals of over an inch and a half to Northwestern Middlesex County, New Jersey on Saturday, September 2nd. Places further north such as Bergen County in Northern New Jersey had areas where trees were uprooted as well as flooding while Monmouth County had to deal with beach erosion and minor tidal flooding. The Hurricaneville team captured video footage of the storm in both Somerset and South Plainfield, New Jersey on September 1st and 2nd.
Hurricane Gordon was the only other hurricane to threaten land in 2006. Re-curving out into the waters of the North Atlantic east of Bermuda, Gordon accelerated to the east, and made a beeline for the Azores island chain in the Northern Central Atlantic. The storm threatened much of the islands there with winds of Category Two strength at 100 mph before eventually transitioning into an extratropical system. Following Gordon, Helene and Isaac churned across the open waters of the Atlantic as the only two major, or intense hurricanes of the season. A major or intense hurricane is one that has at least 115 mile per hour winds, or is classified as a Category Three Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.
Despite their power, these storms were very similar to Gordon in that they each recurved to the east of Bermuda, and met their demise in the much cooler waters of the Northern Atlantic. After Isaac faded from view in early October, there were no more named storms for the balance of the season. For the first time since 2002 there were no named storms in October, November, or December. In addition, there were no Category Five Hurricanes for the first time in four years. As mentioned earlier, 2006 would end up being only the second such season during this recent active cycle of the past twelve years to have fewer than ten named storms. The only other season to hold that claim was 1997, which was ironically also an El Niño year.
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Similar to both the starts in 2005 and 2007 as well as 2003, the 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season got off to a quick start with its first named storm in June. Tropical Storm Alberto formed within the first ten days of the season, and ended up a strong storm with sustained winds peaking at 70 miles per hour, and gusts reaching 80 miles per hour. Minimum central pressure was as low as 29.38 inches of Hg, or 995 millibars. A month and a week later, Beryl formed some 220 miles to the South-Southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and had a peak intensity of moderate tropical storm strength with 60 mile per hour maximum sustained winds, and gusts as high as 70 miles per hour while its pressure was 29.56 inches of Hg, or 1001 millibars.
Beryl moved rapidly up the East Coast, and threatened to hit land at the extreme tip of New England in the vicinity of Chatham, Massachusetts and Martha's Vineyard. By this time though, the El Niño's presence was beginning to be felt, and although Chris and Debby would follow, they would fizzle out before becoming anything greater than a mild to moderate tropical storm. Simultaneously in the Pacific basins of the EastPAC and WestPAC, activity was on the increase. The Western Pacific had a very tumultuous season while Eastern Pacific enjoyed its most active season since 1997, which is not ironic, nor a coincidence.
There is a relationship between activity in the Eastern Pacific and the Atlantic, and the El Niño/La Niña climate patterns are responsible for that. During El Niño years, waters in the Eastern Pacific become much warmer than normal, and since tropical storms and hurricanes like warm sea surface temperatures, they tend to flourish during an ENSO cycle. On the other hand, when La Niña occurs, the waters of the Eastern Pacific get cooler, and tropical storms and hurricanes become less likely. Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, El Niño years bring with them less activity in the form of tropical systems.
The reason for that is because storms forming in the Eastern Pacific create outflow that generate hostile upper level wind conditions, or wind shear that blows across Mexico into the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Western Atlantic. However, during La Niña, fewer storms in the Eastern Pacific develop, which in turn, produces less wind shear in the Atlantic, and as a result, more storms and hurricanes develop in the Atlantic Basin. This latest episode of ENSO, the El Niño Southern Oscillation, came a bit earlier, and was more tenacious than expected.
As a result, dire pre-season, and early season forecasts including those by Dr. Gray and NOAA ended up being well off their marks. The news media focused on this intensely especially in light of the fact that some forecasts, most notably Accu-Weather's belief that the Northeast was in the crosshairs for a major hurricane in 2006. In addition, coastal residents, who were fearing and preparing for the worst, felt the likes of Dr. Gray and Joe Bastardi were crying wolf. Nevertheless, most hurricane weary citizens in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were very grateful since the below normal activity in 2006 gave them a full year to continue recovery efforts following the two deadly and devastating seasons of 2004 and 2005.
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