Once May rolls around, low rates beckon at resorts in the Caribbean and on Mexico's Caribbean coast (Cancun and the Riviera Maya). Yet every few years, one of these popular spots is pummeled by a tropical storm. Florida, too, is vulnerable on the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, and in the Keys to the south. Even tourist powerhouse Orlando -- in the middle of the state-- gets an occasional blast. (See more about the Florida hurricane season.)
Officially, the Atlantic hurricane season is from June 1 to November 30, but as the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) notes:
- "There is nothing magical in these dates, and hurricanes have occurred outside of these six months, but these dates were selected to encompass over 97% of tropical activity."
When Is the Hurricane Season Most Active?
Again according to the AOML, there's a "very peaked season from August to October," which means this period includes:
- 78% of the tropical storm days
- 87% of the "minor" hurricane days, and
- 96% of the "major" hurricane days
Of course Mother Nature isn't reading any calendars, and every once in a while a tropical cyclone hits out of season -- usually in May or December-- or late in the season: Hurricane Wilma, for instance, battered Cancun and the Riviera Maya on October 21 and 22 2005.
If you've heard this old mariner's poem about Caribbean hurricanes:
June- too soon.
July-- stand by!
August-- look out you must.
October, all over.
-- Wilma was a reminder that October can be risky. (See a graphic of October Caribbean hurricanes over many decades; see also month by month statistics for the Caribbean.)
Area of Impact
Even if a hurricane doesn't officially make landfall, its effects can be drastic. Hurricane-force winds can extend 90 miles out from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds might reach 200 miles. Even "squalls," or heavy thunderstorms, can extend several hundred miles. Another point: "landfall" only officially occurs when the center of the eye of the storm contacts land. The strongest winds, however, are at the "eye-wall" around the edge of the eye, and this might hit land even if the center does not. See more about area of hurricane impact.
Hurricane Season in the Caribbean: Different Areas
Some islands are less prone to violent storms than others, and holiday-goers can try to pick spots strategically. The Dutch Caribbean "ABC" islands -- Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao-- are clustered close to Venezuela, and considered to be out of the main hurricane zone. Trinidad and Tobago, too, are south of the hurricane belt and rarely get hit.
Also, some say that the eastern Caribbean and US East Coast are most at risk from mid-August to mid-September, while in the western Caribbean (which includes Mexico and Belize), the season intensifies from mid-September into early November. Disregarding this conventional wisdom, Jamaica, in the western Caribbean, has mainly been hit during late August and early September...
Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn't reading any calendars or maps.
2013 Hurricane Season
Still, every year experts give their best shots at forecasts. For example, the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University offers Tropical Storm Forecasts. A document posted on December 7 2012 noted that " One of the big uncertainties for the 2013 Atlantic basin hurricane season is whether or not El Niño will develop." An update on April 10 2013 says that "it appears that the chances of an El Niño event this summer or fall are low. We anticipate an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the United States coastline and in the Caribbean." (See latest document.) As the hurricane season progresses, two week forecasts provide updates.
Another source for forecasts is the Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center (CPC), in collaboration with the National Hurricane Center (NHC), which issues updates in May and August. Note that the "NOAA does not make seasonal hurricane landfall predictions. Hurricane landfalls are largely determined by the weather patterns in place as the hurricane approaches, which are only predictable when the storm is within several days of making landfall." (--NOAA) An update issued August 9 2012 "indicates a high likelihood (85% chance) of a near- or above-normal season. The outlook calls for a 50% chance of a near-normal season, a 35% chance of an above normal season, and only a 15% chance of a below-normal season."
How To Protect Your Vacation
While the likelihood of a direct hit to your beach resort is small, even if your holiday isn't actually in the path of a major storm, weather patterns are disrupted in a wide radius. Some days may be spoiled by rain and wind if you're in an affected area.
Despite the weather risks, hurricane season is a tempting time to travel because it spans the top two months when kids are out of school. Also -- and not surprisingly!-- very tempting discounts are offered at Caribbean resorts during these months.
- Check out Strategies for Hurricane Season: such as choosing safer islands, or choosing resorts and vacation packagers that offer weather guarantees.
Not Even Going Near hurricane zone in peak months | Ok, I'll Go, But Carefully picking place and timing. | Count Me In, BUT with weather guarantees at the resort or other insurance. | Don't Worry, Be Happy: the odds of enjoying fine weather are good. | See How Others Vote
Hurricanes, by the way, are classified by a system based on Hurricane Categories 1 through 5. Category 1 has wind speeds of 74 to 95 mph; Categories 3 and up are major destructive forces.