WRUF Weather

The 2012 Hurricane Season: Full of Records and Surprises


The 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season was a doozy.

From tropical storms producing record rainfalls and 100-year floods across Florida, to a 1,000-mile-wide “Super Storm” and yet another hurricane impacting New Orleans, the season gave us a number of records and surprises.

Tens of millions of people from South America to Canada, Bermuda to Mexico, were impacted in some way by the 19 storms and 10 hurricanes that developed in the Atlantic Basin.  The activity, which spanned from May to November, reminded us that no matter what time of year, tropical weather safety depends on careful observation of the tropics all year long.

Things began early, with two tropical storms forming before the National Hurricane Center’s official June 1st start date – the first time this had happened since 1908 [1].

Both Alberto and Beryl impacted Northeast Florida, with Beryl making landfall near hurricane status at Jacksonville Beach. The storm set the all-time record for strongest pre-season landfall [2] with winds up to 70mph.  It also dumped huge amounts of rain – 15” in Wellborn [3] and 3.25” in Gainesville [4]– setting daily and monthly rainfall records across the state in the process.

At this point, many prominent tropical weather forecasters increased their projected totals for the season. Many had called for a season with below-normal or near-normal activity before the season’s outset, based on a variety of large-scale climatological factors.

In WRUF’s “State of the Season” series, we touched on many of these predictions, including the projected early start to the season and the development of an El Nino current, which when combined with the North-Atlantic Oscillation, would likely serve to limit development in the second half of the season.

The first hurricane, Hurricane Chris, formed out to sea, followed shortly thereafter by Tropical Storm Debby.

Tropical Storm Debby dumped nearly two feet of rain in parts of North-Central Florida, shattering records and busting a year-long drought.

Tropical Storm Debby became the earliest-forming fourth storm in a season, shattering the record by nearly two weeks.  The storm remained nearly stationary off the Nature Coast for three days, dumping record rainfall of over 25” in some places across Columbia and Wakulla Counties [5] while lashing coastal regions with days of gale-force winds, causing significant beach erosion and damage from the Keys to Pensacola. Gainesville received its second-highest-ever rainfall total of all-time, 6.95” on June 24. [6]

Debby also spawned 25 tornadoes across the southern half of Florida, the second-largest recorded tornado outbreak in the state’s history. [7] One fatality was reported in Highlands County from an EF2, with sustained winds of at least 111 mph.

After this initial burst of activity, over a month passed before the next storm, Hurricane Ernesto, formed on August 1st. While initially feared to impact Florida, the storm ended up impacting Jamaica and Mexico, making landfall near Cozumel as a Category 1 Hurricane.

Three storms of minimal impact, Florence, Gordon and Helene followed in quick succession, with Isaac forming on August 21st.

Hurricane Isaac may be remembered most in Florida for its impact on the Republican National Convention, causing its delay by one day while the storm’s center passed to the south and west of the peninsula. [8] However, the storm also adversely impacted earthquake-weakened Haiti, causing 24 deaths, as well as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Louisiana and Mississippi. [9]

FEMA Director Craig Fugate stopped by the WRUF studios to brief us and several national television networks on the preparations and response plans for Hurricane Isaac.

The storm made a direct move toward the Louisiana coast, raising fears of another direct New Orleans impact from a major hurricane. In the end, the storm struggled with dry air, disorganization, and land interaction, not becoming a hurricane until a week after its formation and just hours before landfall. It still managed to cause over $2 billion in damage throughout the Southeast and Caribbean, severely testing levees across Louisiana, and damaging oil platforms and beaches with its powerful storm surge.

The next four storms, Tropical Storm Joyce, and Hurricanes Karen, Leslie and Michael, did not affect land but still left their mark in history. All four storms hold second place for earliest formation of the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth storms of the season, respectively. Also, Leslie was the last of the record-tying eight storms to form in August, making August 2012 one of only four months in history to see eight Atlantic storms form. [10]

It was clear by September that the El Nino current, which would have served as a powerful inhibitor to cyclone development, stopped its warming, remaining officially “neutral”, or between cycles, and could allow for the development of many more storms than first projected.  Most of the storms, however, remained out to sea (a common occurrence in El Nino seasons as well).

Hurricane Nadine, while also not impacting land significantly, tied for the second-longest time spent at tropical-storm intensity or greater, dawdling in the open waters of the East Atlantic for 23 days. [11] Tropical Storms Oscar and Patty remained out to sea, while Hurricane Rafael brought nearly a foot of rain to some areas in the Caribbean before recurving toward Bermuda. [12]

While Hurricane Sandy remained hundreds of miles off shore, significant beach erosion still occurred in St. Augustine thanks to the hours of on-shore winds and large ocean swells.

Hurricane Sandy needs no introduction. The storm, which became the largest ever seen in Atlantic history, and may yet be the most costly hurricane in U.S. history, brought massive storm surge, hurricane-force winds and flooding to areas from South America to Canada, Bermuda to Michigan.  Sandy formed in an area where late-season storms are common, but it made landfall in an unusual way by curving west toward the Jersey Shore rather than moving out to sea.  Dubbed by many as a repeat of the infamous “Perfect Storm” from 1991 [13], Sandy went through a similar process of becoming extra-tropical before landfall.  This occurs when a colder area of low pressure spawned over land interacts with the warm-core of the hurricane, breeding what eventually became known as “Super Storm Sandy”.  This 1000-mile-wide beast produced record-setting sea level rises in New Jersey, Lower Manhattan, and Long Island and knocked out power to millions of residents in more than a dozen states.

Only one other storm was recorded in the tropical Atlantic after the birth of Sandy, and that was Tropical Storm Tony.  Tony dissipated long before Sandy and remained thousands of miles out in the Atlantic.

While Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy may be the most-memorable events of the 2012 Hurricane Season, the year will be fresh in the minds of Floridians for years to come as well.  It started unusually early, busted a year-long extreme drought, and produced a near-record outbreak of tornadoes – all happening in the first month of the season!  The peak of the season is usually in September, but this year only seven of the nineteen storms developed after September 1st.  The preseason developments, unusual storm distribution, and erratic movements of the cyclones all serve as a reminder that Floridians should always be prepared for a storm, every year from May to December, no matter the forecast.


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