2017 Hurricane Forecast Above Normal? Cruise Meteorologist Tells Us What To Expect

May 31, 2017
Closeup of footprints on a stormy beach

(9:35 a.m. EDT) -- If you're cruising between June 1 and November 30, you might have already noticed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted another above-normal Atlantic hurricane season for 2017.

Before you freak out, let's take a look at what this means. The forecast reports a 45-percent chance of an above-normal season, with a 70-percent likelihood of 11 to 17 named storms of which five to nine could become hurricanes, including two to four major hurricanes.

We caught up with Royal Caribbean's new chief meteorologist, James Van Fleet, to translate the forecast, and chat a little about what his role as the industry's first meteorologist entails.

"Basically, what happens at the TV stations is the producers see [the forecast] come across the AP wire, and they write it up because it's sexy and they think it's a good story that will get people's attention," said Van Fleet, adding that because it's the producers writing the story, and not the meteorologists, sometimes it's hard to convey what the numbers actually mean.

"It doesn't mean that it's an above-average year for Miami or it's an above-average year for Puerto Rico or it's an above-average year for St. Maarten. What that forecast means is we expect a little bit higher than average number of hurricanes for all of the Atlantic Ocean, for all of the Caribbean and for all of the Gulf of Mexico. It's not one zip code; it is thousands and thousands of miles of ocean."

Every day, Van Fleet, who has 20-plus years of experience as a meteorologist on television, tracks not only the weather, but also every ship in Royal Caribbean's fleet -- communicating with the captains, the marine operations team and even the cruisers themselves. Throughout the season, Van Fleet's weather reports will be broadcast onboard the ships, while videos will be streamed on social media, so the families of those traveling (and even weather geeks like us) can follow along.

Hurricane prediction graph

If an itinerary does change, Van Fleet said, "You do get the message from your captain and your bridge officers, but I think [my position] adds a layer of more personal communication for anybody who wants it. It doesn't matter what ship you're on or what cruise you're thinking about taking."

What's important to remember, however, is that you'll never actually sail into a tropical storm or hurricane. All cruise lines closely monitor the weather and reroute ships to avoid dangerous conditions. The best way to stay on top of any changes is to stay in close communication with your cruise line, or keep tabs on Cruise Critic's hurricane season coverage. Luckily, cruise lines make it easy to stay connected by posting regular updates on their social media accounts; Carnival also has developed a text alert system, which sends ship-specific messages to booked cruisers.

Whether you're cruising this summer or planning ahead, Van Fleet said that while you can get a great deal on a cruise this time of year, it's important to plan ahead and prepare for summer weather and the possibility of itinerary changes.

"It's not just tropical weather we're watching out for. This time of year in the Caribbean, it's very common for afternoon thunderstorms, lightning and storms." He suggests, for example: "Don't do the late-day [excursions]. Go as early as possible, because there's usually a lot less storms and more sunshine in the morning."

Find out how else you can prepare, what kind of deals you can snag and more, in our breakdown of hurricane season pros, cons and tips.

--By Gina Kramer, Editor