Hurricane Franklin surfing on Nantucket

Hurricane Franklin surfing on Nantucket in August of 2023. Photo: Dan LeMaitre

The Inertia

Most Atlantic surfers are tuned into the hurricane and tropical storm forecasts right now, and for good reason. All predictions point to an overactive, and some would even say “hyperactive” upcoming storm season that could very well translate to an outpouring of waves from our rocky points to our sandy beachbreaks.

In New England, hurricane hype is nothing new, and sometimes when your wave-crazed buddy won’t stop ranting about the pumping waves due in late summer, you need to toss them a Valium. However, forecasters, meteorologists and jonesing surfers all over the country are weighing in as the season kicks into gear (as I write this, we’re only at Day 25). In its preseason outlook, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted more storms than ever before, with approximately 7-25 to-be-named storms, 8-13 out of that group expected to be hurricanes, and 4-7 major hurricanes. As a point of comparison, the previous record for predicted number of storms from NOAA was in 2010, and stood at 14 to 23 named storms. 

How much of this wave-hungry chatter is hype, and how much of the information we have so far adds up to the real deal? James Wieland, a meteorologist in West Palm Beach, Florida for the NBC affiliate, says that the reason the hype meter is out of control is because “all of the ingredients are coming together;” including abnormally warm sea surface temperatures that Wieland says “acts as fuel for storms.” An avid surfer for 30-plus years, Wieland is quick to point out that ingredients are “only indicators,” and that we need more than warm water to act as a “match to light the gas” for an explosive storm. Yet, he adds that “it’d be very odd” if we didn’t see an especially active hurricane season this year, “considering all the positive factors.”

The ingredients fueling these predictions, some of which are record-breaking, are varied, amounting to the perfect storm (sorry, had to). First off, our extremely warm Atlantic and Caribbean waters help create more intense storms. These warmer seas are emboldened by the incoming La Niña weather pattern, replacing a strong El Niño pattern. According to Wieland, there is a strong chance that La Nina will develop by July and keep going through the winter. When La Niña  takes hold, Wieland says there is “little to no wind shear, so you are subtracting something that prevents a storm from forming and strengthening.” Added to this cauldron of fiery potential is the idea that West African monsoons, which Wieland calls the “seeds” for some of the most potent Atlantic storms, are predicted to be in above-average number.

The facts don’t lie: the chances are high that we may see a record-breaking storm season this year, beginning relatively soon. Speaking to a friend the other day about these predictions, we both started to cheer — finally, waves on the way!? — and then abruptly backed off. The reality of rooting for hurricanes to bring us epic surf is that you very quickly realize you may also be enthusiastically endorsing coastal destruction, injury, and death. 

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the most destructive hurricanes are three times more common than they were a century ago, and move more slowly. From Katrina in 2005, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Harvey in 2017 and Ian in 2022; these monstrous storms hover over our increasingly overpopulated coastlines and create irrevocable damage. In fact, the total cost of climate and weather-related disasters in the U.S. from 1980-2023 is in the trillions, with 2023 smashing records in terms of our warming climate, flooding and dangerous weather.

While many of us first think of chaotic winds when autumn hurricane season comes to mind, it is the storm surges that have been so destructive as of late, as the winds push waves up and over the shore and into traditionally dry communities. As the earth warms, ocean waters heat up and glaciers and ice sheets melt. This causes sea levels to rise and storm surges to grow more dramatic, creating expansive, slow-moving, intense storms carrying the power to cause irreversible destruction. You know those photos of people paddling down the streets of their community after a storm surge? That sort of stuff didn’t happen so often 30 years ago.

As a surfer, my memories of last fall center on a roughly three-week string of consistent hurricane surf, epitomized by Hurricane Lee and Hurricane Franklin. But those storms stayed out in the middle of the Atlantic, threading a narrow path to serve up quality set waves. When storms reach the Caribbean Sea, the swells can be cut off, unless it has the strength and direction to reach the Central Atlantic. On the other hand, when storms are strong enough, they can make it along the curving path to the Gulf, or the Western Atlantic—and if they get that close, they may hit land. 

No one, not even a surfer hungry for surf after a long flat summer, wants a major storm to make landfall and trigger a catastrophe, of course. We just want waves for days. So, what type of storm track should Atlantic surfers be hoping for? “For the East Coast,” Wieland explains, “the ideal path for good waves is a long track storm that develops quickly off the Cabo Verde islands, strengthens quickly, hooks between Bermuda and Hatteras, and then moves out to sea.” For the Florida surfers out there, Wieland, who’s home break is Palm Beach, adds that a “stalled storm near Bermuda is good for pretty much everybody, even South Florida.” 

Hopefully, we can cut through all the hype and collectively hope for a powerful, yet safe, hurricane season that brings waves to everyone who wants them (sorry, West Coast, but you’ve got an eternal embarrassment of riches), and doesn’t leave anyone stranded in the streets with just a lone paddleboard to their name.


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