WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA 9) - Although September is the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, the season continues through the end of November. October has seen a fair number of major hurricanes in the last 20 years. Some of the more notorious include Hurricanes Opal, Mitch and Wilma.
As winter draws closer, the tropical Atlantic Ocean begins to see less favorable atmospheric conditions for hurricanes to form including cooler ocean water and a higher degree of wind shear or winds that change speed or direction with altitude. That's why October hurricanes tend to concentrate in the Western Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico where the water remains warmer and the winds remain favorable longer.
The 1995 hurricane season is notable for a total of 19 named storms - almost double the annual average of 10 named tropical storms in a given season. The most intense hurricane of the 1995 season formed in October in the southern Gulf of Mexico, which is among the more favorable areas for tropical storm development. It rapidly intensified into a Category 4 hurricane - the strongest storm of the season - over the warm water in the Gulf. However, Opal weakened to a Category 3 storm before making landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
On October 26, 1998, Hurricane Mitch became the Atlantic Ocean's first Category 5 hurricane since Andrew in 1992, with sustained winds up to 180 mph. Conditions were ideal with exceptionally warm ocean water, well above the 80 degree Fahrenheit threshold for hurricane development. Since the prevailing wind pattern was weak and didn't steer the storm away, Hurricane Mitch was left to slowly meander around the southwest Caribbean Sea. That led to severe flooding in Central America that unfortunately caused widespread devastation and a tragic loss of over 11,000 lives.
During the record setting 2005 season, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean formed in almost the same spot as Hurricane Mitch. Once again, atmospheric conditions were ideal for rapid intensification of the hurricane with extremely warm ocean water. Hurricane Wilma became a Category 5 hurricane on October 19, 2005 with sustained winds of 185 mph. Winds gusted over 200 mph around the center of both Mitch and Wilma. Wilma's lowest observed air pressure was 882 millibars.
By comparison, Hurricane Mitch's lowest air pressure was 905 millibars. The lower the air pressure, the stronger the storm is. Another infamous October hurricane was Hurricane Sandy last October. At peak intensity, Sandy was a major Category 3 hurricane.
Category 5 hurricanes are truly rare storms and even those that do form don't usually stay at that intensity for very long. According to the National Hurricane Center, the Atlantic Ocean Basin has not seen a Category 5 hurricane since Hurricane Felix in 2007. On the Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale, a Category 1 hurricane has sustained winds of 74 mph - 95 mph around the center of the storm, while a Category 5 storm has sustained winds of at least 156 mph. Hurricanes become "major" once they reach Category 3 status with sustained winds around the center of at least 111 mph.
The WUSA 9 team of meteorologists will continue to track any tropical storms or hurricanes that develop and bring you the latest weather information and forecasts, both on-air and online.