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Erratic Eta: a rare, record-breaking November storm keeps churning

It is relatively rare for a major hurricane to develop in November, near the end of the Atlantic hurricane season. Eta became the strongest hurricane in November since 1999 and could even break the record for longevity. (Leer en español)
10 Nov 2020 – 11:21 AM EST
GeoColor satellite image of Tropical Storm Eta at 11:30 a.m. EST Monday, November 9, 2020. Crédito: RAMMB/CIRA/Colorado State University

It seems this hurricane season just doesn’t want to quit!

Tropical storm Eta became a record 12th named storm of the season to make landfall in the United States late Sunday, beating the previous record of nine set in 1916.

To put that in context, from 1851 through 2019, the U.S. averaged 3.2 named storm landfalls per year, 1.6 hurricane landfalls, and 0.5 major hurricane landfalls, says meteorologist Jeff Masters.

Eta was also a relatively rare November hurricane when it hit the east coast of Nicaragua last week. In fact, it was the strongest November hurricane since Lenny in 1999, which never threatened the United States, just missing Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Eta's maximum sustained winds at its peak intensity were 150 mph, just behind Lenny's max winds of 155 mph. Eta was also the strongest November hurricane to hit Nicaragua on record,” according to Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane expert with the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.

If Eta survives a few more days it could also end up being the longest-lived Atlantic named November storm since a 1912 storm managed to keep going for 10.25 named storm days, according to Klotzbach.

"Erratic" Eta

"The most important characteristic of this hurricane is its erratic trajectory," said Bob Bunting, an atmospheric scientist and CEO of the Climate Adapation Center in Florida who said that was one of three identifying characteristics of "climate-warmed hurricanes."

He also noted that Eta rapidly intensified from a tropical storm to a near category five hurricane in just 36 hours as it approached Nicaragua, while also having a small "pin-eye", which he compared to a tornado.

On Tuesday, Eta was lingering off the nothernern tip of Cuba and is forceast to head north over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and dissipating before it reaches Alabama at the weekend.

Persistent rain from Eta over portions of southern and central Florida at the weekend resulted in torrential rains that caused widespread urban flooding, with wind damage knocking out power to over 200,000 customers at various times.

Although the six-month-long Atlantic hurricane season officially extends until the end of the month, June and November tend to see the least activity, with the peak occurring around mid-September. The ‘hurricane alley’ that generates storms from the west coast of Africa into the eastern Atlantic usually ceases to be active in October. Instead, late-season storms are more apt to develop in the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the NOAA database, just one named storm (with winds of 39 mph or more) occurs on average after the start of November each year. A storm makes landfall in the U.S. after Nov. 1 less than once every 10 years, but they tend to be weaker due to unfavorable atmospheric conditions. In fact, none of the storms to hit the U.S. mainland after Nov. 1 have reached major Category 3 hurricane status.

The last one was Ida in 1999, which formed on Nov. 4 and first made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua before reaching the Alabama coast as a tropical storm a week later.

Hurricane Mitch in 1998 formed in late October and grew to a monster Category 5 before hitting Honduras, then hooked around and cut across the Gulf of Mexico to make landfall in Florida as a tropical storm on Nov. 5.

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The last November hurricane to reach U.S. shores was Ida in 1999, which formed on Nov. 4 and first made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. It reemerged over the Caribbean Sea, and briefly peaked as a Category 2 hurricane, before reaching the Alabama coast on Nov. 10 as a tropical storm.

In another rarity, Eta was the first storm in over a century to hit Cuba, Central America and Florida. Klotzbach said one Category 3 hurricane in 1906 hit Nicaragua, moved over Central America, redeveloped into a hurricane, hit Cuba as a Category 3 hurricane then weakened before hitting the east coast of Florida as a tropical storm.

“It's not a perfect analog, but there aren't a lot of storms that have taken a track similar to Eta's!” he told Univision.

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