(WGHP) – Hurricane season begins today, June 1, which means it’s time to prepare for the months ahead.

In order to understand the information presented by meteorologists, certain terms are important to know. As hurricane season begins, we’ll dive into these words as well as the risks that come with tropical systems in the Piedmont Triad. 

Understand Forecast Information 

When meteorologists are helping you prepare for a tropical storm or hurricane it’s important to know certain terms that forecasters will use. Some important words include hurricane “watch” or “warning,” the “cone of uncertainty” and the “Saffir-Simpson Scale.” 

Let’s dive into what these words mean and how they can help you be prepared for the hurricane season.

Saffir-Simpson Scale

According to the National Hurricane Center, the Saffir-Simpson scale is a one to five rating based on a hurricane’s maximum sustained wind speed. It does not take into account other hazards that hurricanes bring like storm surge, flooding or tornadoes.

Tropical storms, which have sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph, are not technically included in the Saffir-Simpson scale. Once a tropical cyclone reaches wind speeds of 74 mph or greater, it becomes a hurricane. A hurricane rated as category 3 or above is known as a major hurricane and has sustained winds of 111 mph or greater. 

Category 1 hurricanes produce very dangerous winds that can lead to some damage occurring. Once a storm reaches category 2 strength with sustained winds 96 to 110 mph, extremely dangerous winds can then cause extensive damage. The powerful winds of major hurricanes, category 3+, lead to devastating or catastrophic damage. 

Hurricane Watch v. Hurricane Warning

According to the National Weather Service, a hurricane watch means hurricane conditions and sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher are possible. The National Hurricane Center issues hurricane watches 48 hours before they expect tropical storm-force winds, 39 to 73 mph,  to begin. 

A hurricane warning means that hurricane-force winds are expected. Forecasters issue hurricane warnings 36 hours before tropical storm-force winds are expected in the area. 

The 36-to-48-hour advanced warning is to help alert those who may be impacted and to give them enough time to prepare for the storm, whether that means evacuating or sheltering in place if it’s safe to do so. 

Tropical Outlooks and Tropical Advisories

The National Hurricane Center also releases tropical outlooks at least every six hours at 5 a.m., 11 a.m., 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. each day, and the outlook shows the chance of cyclone formation within the next 48 hours and within the next seven days. 

In previous years, the outlook only reached the next five days, but it has been extended to seven this year to give advanced warning of possible tropical systems. 

According to the National Weather Service, when a tropical cyclone has formed in the Atlantic, the National Hurricane Center issues tropical cyclone advisory products at least every six hours. When tropical storm or hurricane watches or warnings are in effect, the National Hurricane Center releases Tropical Cyclone public advisories every three hours. These advisories list all watches and warnings associated with the tropical cyclone, provide the cyclone’s position, strength and motion, and describe the hazards associated with the storm. 

Cone of Uncertainty

Included in the Tropical Cyclone Public Advisories is a graphic that shows the areas included in a tropical storm and hurricane watches and warnings, the position of the center of the storm as well as its predicted track, known as the “cone of uncertainty”. 

Tropical Storm Isaias forecast track as of 5 a.m. Thursday (National Hurricane Center)
Tropical Storm Isaias forecast track as of 5 a.m. July 30, 2020. (National Hurricane Center)

According to the National Weather Service, the cone of uncertainty shows the possible path the center of the storm may take but it does not show the size of the storm. The cone is used to convey the uncertainty in the forecast and is drawn in a way that the center of the storm will likely remain inside the cone about 60% to 70% of the time. 

Tropical cyclones can span hundreds of miles which means that areas well outside of the cone will often still experience hazards such as tornadoes or flooding from heavy rainfall. 

Why do we name hurricanes?

Hurricanes are given names because it makes it easier for meteorologists to communicate the information with the public. 

According to NOAA, the names are short and distinctive to make communication quicker and to avoid confusion between storms. 

The World Meteorological Organization releases a list of male and female names that are on a six-year rotation. If a storm is so deadly or costly that reusing a name would be inconsiderate or cause additional confusion, the name is retired and a new name replaces the old one. 

The 2023 Atlantic hurricane names list shows that our first named storm of the season would be Arlene followed by Bret and then Cindy. 

When is peak hurricane season?

Hurricane season begins June 1 and lasts until Nov. 30. The peak of hurricane season is Sept. 10.

However, August and September are known for increased tropical activity due to the warm ocean waters in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

Know Your Risks

There are a few primary threats that occur with hurricanes. They include storm surge, flooding, hurricane-force winds, tornadoes and rough surf or rip currents. 

According to NOAA, storm surge is water that is pushed ashore by the winds that rotate around a center of low pressure. It is also historically what has led to the largest loss of life in hurricanes. The storm surge leads to a rise in water level and can cause severe flooding in coastal areas leading to structural damage to buildings and washed-out roadways. 

Hurricanes can also produce deadly rip currents and rough surf along the beaches, even if the storm is hundreds of miles away from the coast. Just because the weather is good at the beach does not mean that the ocean is safe. Most beaches have a system to inform you if rip currents or the surf are dangerous. 

Since the Triad is further inland, the primary threats that affect our area include flooding, hurricane-force winds and tornadoes. 

Tropical storms and hurricanes bring large amounts of rain that result in short-term flash flooding or even more long-term flooding. During the 2022 hurricane season, the Triad experienced extended periods of heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Ian. 

The FEMA has an interactive map available online so you can check if your house is in a flood-prone area. 

The widespread, heavy rainfall from a tropical system combined with hurricane-force winds is what leads to several issues during hurricane season for the Triad. The rainfall makes the ground softer, and when the strong tropical storm- or hurricane-force winds combine with the saturated ground, trees and powerlines begin to fall. 

Tropical systems can also produce tornadoes. The tornadoes typically occur in thunderstorms within the rain bands of a hurricane or tropical storm, especially on the northeast side of the center of the hurricane. Tornadoes can also occur near the eyewall due to the rapid change in wind direction. 

Make a Plan

Like any important event, making a plan to remain safe is always a great strategy, especially when it comes to natural disasters. Will you need to evacuate your home? Will you be able to safely shelter in place?

Since the Piedmont Triad is located further inland, evacuating is not something that would impact us but it may be something to consider if your family is on vacation along the coast this summer. 

If you plan on sheltering in place, let’s dive into a few things to consider to ensure your safety. 

Because hurricanes bring several risks as we discussed earlier, it’s important to be ready for the possibility of an extended period of time without water, power, internet and gasoline. 

A great way to be prepared is by making a hurricane preparedness kit that can be stored in an easy-to-find place in the event of a hurricane. 

A storage container full of non-perishable foods, water jugs or bottles, a NOAA weather radio, batteries, backup phone chargers, flashlights or lanterns, cash, a first aid kit and important documents is a great start to a hurricane preparedness kit. 

Some other items that can be included are a manual can opener, baby wipes, medications, pet supplies and paper towels. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a resource titled “Preparing for a Hurricane” that includes a step-by-step plan to prepare for hurricane season. See what else can help you be hurricane ready on the CDC website.


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Tracking the Tropics

As of May 31, there is one area of interest in the tropics. The National Hurricane Center has identified an area of possible cyclone formation in the Gulf of Mexico and into the Florida peninsula. 

The chance of formation in the next two days is only 20%. Over the next week, the chance remains at a 20% chance of development. 

The National Hurricane Center said, “By this weekend, environmental conditions are forecast to become unfavorable for additional development as the system drifts southeastward towards the Florida Peninsula. Regardless of development, the system could produce heavy rainfall and gusty winds over portions of the Florida Peninsula through this weekend.”