When is the Caribbean hurricane season?

The official hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from 1 June to 30 November, but within that, there are variations. On rare occasions, hurricanes can occur as early as May. July is often free of tropical storms as the water cools (particularly in the southern Caribbean), while warmer water temperatures make October the month when the most hurricanes form, and June the second most likely. However, hurricanes are not guaranteed and those that do occur vary greatly in intensity and impact.

Why is the Caribbean so prone to hurricanes?

Most Caribbean storms form over the Atlantic, some as far away as the coast of West Africa. They are charged by warm water and moist air, something the Caribbean has plenty of in the soggy summer months. The tropical storms grow in intensity, and as the warm air rises, thunderstorms occur. The hurricanes are, in effect, a huge cluster of thunderstorms. The faster the warm air rises, the more it churns the surface, causing huge waves at sea and powerful winds. Hurricane Maria, which devastated Dominica in September 2017, had wind speeds of 280km per hour, with gusts that were even stronger.

The winds and the subsequent waves and flooding can be devastating to coastal communities. Hurricanes are fuelled by warm water, which is why they ease off when travelling over land. It is also why these tiny islands, surrounded by the tepid Caribbean Sea, are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes.

Avoiding hurricane season in the Caribbean

Unsurprisingly, the most popular time to visit the Caribbean is outside of the hurricane season, from December to April. Warm weather, no risk of hurricanes and barely any rain either during these peak months means that this is a safe and pleasant time to visit, although some islands do become busy and prices are at their highest.

It’s also worth studying typical patterns, since hurricanes tend to form in certain areas of the Caribbean at specific times in the season. During May and June, at the very start of the Caribbean hurricane season, most hurricanes occur in the western Caribbean. By August and September, they can occur throughout most of the region. The season peaks in October, when the ocean surface temperature is at its warmest. The majority of hurricanes again form in the western Caribbean at this time, and are at their strongest.
Interestingly, 99 percent of hurricanes in the Caribbean move from east to west (only one has travelled west to east in the last 113 years). If you are in the Caribbean during hurricane season and there is one blowing to the west of where you are, it’s most likely to be moving away from you.

The Caribbean in November or May remains a good option. You won’t find the crowds, but you might catch the beginning or end of the rains. May can feel pretty hot and humid, too, particularly in the southern Caribbean. November is still technically hurricane season, but most big storms hit in June or October. July is another good time to visit, when hurricanes rarely affect the region.
Obviously, hurricanes are never a given, so it is possible to travel during hurricane season, dodge the odd shower and for the most part simply enjoy good weather and pleasantly quiet islands. In fact, tailor made trips run throughout the year, so it’s worth weighing up the risks and quizzing your holiday provider – travelling during hurricane season could save you money as well as coinciding with natural phenomena, such as migratory birds arriving from South America or turtles nesting on the beaches.
Various national meteorological services and scientific agencies forecast how many named storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes will hit the Caribbean each season, but with climate change distorting typical weather patterns, this is far from an exact science. The first forecast for the devastating 2017 season, issued in December 2016 by TSR (the Tropical Storm Risk Consortium of the University College London) predicted a near average season with six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. In the end, though, 2017 was a hyperactive and catastrophic season, with 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes.
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Other options

A handful of Caribbean Islands lie far enough south to be considered beneath the hurricane belt, so they are good options for travel at any time of the year. Trinidad and Tobago and the so-called ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, as well as Barbados, Grenada and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines are far less likely to be affected by hurricanes than the other islands. That said, hurricanes are not unheard of here; Hurricane Ivan devastated Grenada in 2004.

Remember that although hurricanes are large, they never affect all islands in the Caribbean. It’s also worth looking into the quantity of rain, and even the way in which it falls in the islands you’re keen to visit, before discounting travel during the wet season; August and September tend to see the heaviest rainfall.
Outside of these months, rain may fall in short bursts or at night and then clear quickly, meaning a holiday during this time is barely impacted. In the Dominican Republic, for instance, May and November are the wettest months, but rain typically falls as tropical downpours after sunset, leaving days fine and sunny. Some activities, such as hiking, are dangerous during the rains, as trails become slippery, but if you are in the Caribbean to bird watch and sightsee, the odd sharp shower won’t seriously hamper your enjoyment.
Vivianne McGrath, from our specialist supplier of nature and bird watching trips to the Caribbean, MotMot Travel:
“Hurricanes very rarely hit the southeastern Caribbean with Trinidad and Tobago and the Dutch [ABC] Islands deemed to be below the hurricane belt. It is also rare to have hurricanes in the early part of the season; most occur in September or October. I would advise avoiding these months except for visiting Trinidad and Tobago, which can experience a secondary dry season, locally known as a ‘Petit Careme’ at this time. It is a bit like an ‘Indian Summer’ and the weather can be lovely and sunny.”

Life after a hurricane

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was utterly catastrophic for the Caribbean. It caused at least US$282 worth of damage – the most costly tropical cyclone season on record. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the season “has caused unprecedented levels of destruction across the Caribbean. It has devastated the lives of millions of people, and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and displaced.”
Hurricane Irma brought destruction to many Caribbean islands, followed by José, which hit Antigua and Barbuda. Days later, on 18th September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica and Puerto Rico. On an island as small and poor as Dominica, there really is nowhere to hide when a hurricane as powerful as Maria sweeps in. Some 15 people were killed and the entire population of around 73,000 people was directly or indirectly affected. Maria also came hard on the heels of another devastating hurricane, Erika, which thrashed the island in 2015.
At Responsible Travel, we work with many small, local holiday companies, based on Dominica or with close ties to this beautiful island. Just after Maria swept through, we made contact with them. Michael Eugene, founder of our supplier Jungle Trekking Adventures and Safaris, said this: “We’ve certainly been battered by Hurricane Maria with a bleak future and outlook ahead. I'm still trying to wrap my head around my next moves. There is an issue of security at this time, and most hotels have sustained major damage. Utilities are still out… and all of the population has been impacted in a major way. My family is all safe and we did suffer property damage, which was not as bad as many others. Thanks again for your thoughts and prayers… please keep them going.”
Dominica needs tourism revenue more than ever now, so travelling here is a great way to show your support, but obviously chat with your holiday provider to establish what you can do here, post Hurricane Maria. It’s also possible to join a volunteering break, to help with the ongoing restoration work. Read interviews with two volunteers in Dominica, Bill McCarthy and Louise Allen, who travelled to the island through Responsible Travel around six months after the hurricane. You can also still donate to the Dominica Hurricane Maria Relief Fund.

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Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Master Butler] [Satellite photo: Nasa Goddard Space Flight] [Storm clouds at sea: 16:9clue] [Rain clouds: Jason Pratt] [Life after a hurricane: DFID]