A confluence of record-breaking ocean temperatures and shifting weather patterns are setting the East Coast up for a high-activity hurricane season, warn experts in Canada and the U.S.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts there will be between 17 and 25 named storms this hurricane season, with eight to 13 achieving hurricane status and four to seven of them becoming major hurricanes (these classifications are largely based on wind speed). This is the highest pre-season forecast NOAA has ever issued. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

“The level of heat that's contained in the ocean right now is pretty much unprecedented,” said Bob Robichaud, warning preparedness meteorologist with the Canadian Hurricane Centre, in a virtual press conference on Thursday.

It’s too early to tell how many of the predicted storms could make landfall in Atlantic Canada because how storms move depends on the weather of the day, said Robichaud.

On average, 35 per cent of storms in the Atlantic Basin end up affecting the Canadian Hurricane Centre’s zone, but “on any given year that average can vary wildly,” said Robichaud.

Last year, Hurricane Lee blew through the Maritimes as a post-tropical storm and left thousands without power. However, Lee’s impacts paled in comparison to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Fiona the year before. After making landfall in Nova Scotia on Sept. 24, 2022, Fiona killed at least three Canadians, caused billions in damage and produced power outages affecting over 500,000 households in Atlantic Canada.

“These very warm waters that we're seeing in the tropical Atlantic … [are] going to be a major contributor to this year's hurricane season,” said Robichaud.

Rising ocean temperatures driven by climate change are creating more intense hurricanes that produce more rain. Warm water is effectively hurricane fuel that not only helps to produce stronger storms to begin with, but also accelerates and intensifies them, said Robichaud.

While these record-breaking temperatures persist, weather conditions are shifting from El Niño, which is less favourable to hurricanes, to La Niña, which can lead to a more severe hurricane season, according to NOAA. Although El Niño usually somewhat inhibits storms, last season had 20 named storms, well over the average of 14 per season, so experts conclude that hot water emerged as the dominant factor, said Robichaud.

“The level of heat that's contained in the ocean right now is pretty much unprecedented,” said Bob Robichaud, warning #preparedness #meteorologist with the #Canadian #Hurricane Centre. This #hurricane season could be busy.

Worsening climate change driven largely by burning fossil fuels is impacting our weather systems in many different ways, often leading to more intense extreme weather events such as wildfires, heatwaves and storms.

Sea level rise will exacerbate the impacts associated with storm surges, noted Nathan Gillet, a research scientist at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, at the press conference. Flooding from heavy rainfall and coastal storm surges are both dangerous elements of hurricanes and Robichaud urged people not to drive or walk on flooded roads.

“It's very surprising how strong that water can be, and sometimes by the time you realize it, it can be too late,” he said. “There are lots of fatalities every year in Canada and in the U.S. as a result of people venturing into flooded waters.”

Improper use of backup generators is another killer, added Robichaud. He says it's too early to tell how much the East Coast will be impacted, but it's never too early to prepare.

Flood damage due to storm surge typically isn't covered by most home insurance policies, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. This left some homeowners in the lurch after Fiona.

The federal government is working on a National Flood Insurance program that would enable people in high-risk areas to access affordable insurance, even for storm surges. Details of the program are not yet public, but Ottawa aims to have it in place by 2025.

— With files from the Associated Press