Hurricane Fred formed just off the western coast of Africa early on Monday morning, coming in as the second-farthest east a hurricane has ever formed in the Atlantic Ocean since records began. It’s extremely unusual to see such a strong storm so close to Africa, but here we are!
Experts widely expect this year’s Atlantic hurricane season to see below-normal activity thanks to the raging El Niño out in the Pacific Ocean, but below average or not, it’s turning into one of the most interesting Atlantic hurricane seasons in recent memory.
Tropical Storm Ana—a rare May storm—made landfall in South Carolina, nudging its way into the record books as the second-earliest U.S. landfall on record. Tropical Storm Bill remained a tropical depression for four days (!!) after landfall in Texas as it made a wide curve through the middle of the United States, finally losing tropical characteristics somewhere near Cincinnati. Claudette became a potent little tropical storm off the Mid-Atlantic coast, spinning-up from thunderstorms in North Carolina a few days earlier. Danny was an incredibly tiny hurricane that unexpectedly became a category three with 115 MPH winds before rapidly falling apart, and Erika...well, Erika needs no introduction.
That brings us to Fred.
There it is, spinning very close to the Cape Verde Islands and about 300 miles off the coast of western Africa. Most powerful tropical cyclones in the Atlantic are (in)famous for getting their start in this part of the world—many of the worst hurricanes in history developed as clusters of thunderstorms over sub-Saharan Africa, moving west off the coast where they slowly gather strength as they traverse the bath water that is the Atlantic in late summer. When conditions are right, these systems—called “Cape Verde-type” hurricanes, for obvious reasons—typically turn into ugly storms about halfway between Africa and the Caribbean.
It’s pretty unusual for a system to threaten the Cape Verde Islands as a tropical storm or hurricane. This small island nation has only seen a hurricane twice in recorded history—Debbie back in 1961 and an unnamed hurricane that developed in 1892. Tropical waves usually don’t get their act together this quickly, but Fred’s a freak of nature.
The storm took advantage of a short window with steering currents from the southeast and an environment capable of sustaining a low-end hurricane. The National Hurricane Center doesn’t expect the storm to last much longer—after a period of strengthening today, the hurricane will encounter a hostile environment that should slowly weaken it to nothing by the weekend.
Hurricane Fred will produce heavy rain, flash flooding, mudslides, a small storm surge, and rough waves as it crosses the many islands that make up Cape Verde, a Portuguese-speaking country that’s home to about half a million people. The country’s capital, Praia, should escape the worst of the hurricane—the city is home to about a quarter of the country’s total population.
Given Fred’s unusual nature, it’s posing some unique problems for experts and amateurs alike. A tropical storm or hurricane forming over/near the Cape Verde Islands is so rare that the software that produces the National Hurricane Center’s auto-generated map products doesn’t have the ability to draw watches or warnings for the Cape Verde Islands. You know a storm is strange when the agency responsible for storms in this ocean basin doesn’t have the capability to show your country’s hurricane warning on its maps.
Fred became a hurricane at 22.5°W, securing its second place spot in recorded history. Many more storms could have formed along or east of this line of longitude before the satellite era, but we never would have known about it unless it hit land or ships in its path.
The record for the farthest east a storm has ever become a hurricane in the Atlantic was Vince (above), which fittingly formed during the ridiculous 2005 hurricane season; the season itself probably holds the record for the most records ever broken in one season. Vince formed up near Madeira Island, which is a few hundred miles southwest of Spain. The water is supposed to be too cold in this area to support a hurricane, but Vince proved us wrong, as did just about every other storm that year.
It isn’t 2005 by a longshot, but 2015 has been an interesting season so far. It makes a weather geek wonder: “what’s next?”
(Knock on wood.)
[Images: NOAA, EUMETSAT, author, NASA]