2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook: Impacts on Offshore Workers

Arnold & Itkin

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently unveiled its predictions for the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. As the offshore industry closely monitors these forecasts, understanding the potential impacts of the season on offshore operations and workers is crucial.

Here's a closer look at NOAA’s predictions.

Predictions for the 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season

The Climate Prediction Center of NOAA forecasts “near-normal” hurricane activity for the Atlantic this year. Specifically, there is a 40% chance of a near-normal season, a 30% chance of an above-normal season, and a 30% chance of a below-normal season. The season extends from June 1 to November 30.

NOAA predicts a range of 12 to 17 total named storms with winds of 39 mph or higher, 5 to 9 of which could become hurricanes with winds exceeding 74 mph, including 1 to 4 major hurricanes (category 3, 4, or 5) with winds of 111 mph or higher. NOAA has expressed 70% confidence in these ranges.

This season’s names, as provided by the World Meteorological Organization, will be:

  • Arlene
  • Bret
  • Cindy
  • Don
  • Emily
  • Franklin
  • Gert
  • Harold
  • Idalia
  • Jose
  • Katia
  • Lee
  • Margot
  • Nigel
  • Ophelia
  • Philippe
  • Rina
  • Sean
  • Tammy
  • Vince
  • Whitney

Names are retired when a storm is particularly destructive.

Why Does NOAA Expect a “Near-Normal” Season?

This year’s predictions are a result of competing factors: some suppressing storm development and others fueling it. Notably, after three seasons influenced by La Niña, which refers to the naturally occurring cooling of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific, there’s a high potential for El Niño to develop. El Niño, which refers to above-average sea-surface temperatures, can suppress Atlantic hurricane activity. However, this could be offset by conditions in the tropical Atlantic Basin.

NOAA will be implementing several upgrades in hurricane modeling over the summer in order to provide more accurate forecasts. These developments include new forecast models, extended tropical cyclone outlook graphics, and an expanded capacity of its supercomputing system.

Impacts on the Offshore Industry

Worker Safety

The safety of offshore workers is paramount during hurricane season. Crews will face significant risks if their employers do not heed hurricane warnings and move or evacuate vessels and rigs.

Offshore workers face the following risks:

  • High waves and strong winds. These conditions can destabilize platforms and vessels. Workers can be thrown overboard, or equipment might become unsecured, posing a risk of injury. Before evacuation, securing equipment is essential to minimize flying debris that can cause injury or further damage.
  • Rapid changes in weather. Hurricanes are unpredictable. A sudden change in storm direction can leave workers and vessels with little time to react, leading to potentially life-threatening situations. Constant monitoring of weather conditions is necessary at all times, particularly during hurricane season in the Gulf.
  • Isolation. Offshore installations are typically remote. In case of an emergency, it might take significant time for help to arrive. Regular training and drills ensure that workers are familiar with emergency procedures and equipment, such as lifeboats and life jackets. Having robust early warning systems and clearly defined emergency protocols can ensure timely evacuation and prevent panic.
  • Evacuation challenges. The logistical challenge of evacuating a large number of workers, sometimes by helicopter, is immense and can be hampered by the weather conditions themselves. Employers must act quickly and err on the side of caution to protect crews.

Economic Consequences

The economic impact of hurricanes on the offshore industry is multifaceted.

There are direct and indirect economic impacts to consider:

  • Damage to infrastructure. Repairing or replacing damaged drilling rigs, platforms, and other infrastructure is costly.
  • Operational downtime. Even if the infrastructure is not damaged, operations are often halted during hurricanes, resulting in a loss of production and revenue.
  • Fluctuation in oil and gas prices. A disruption in production can create supply shortages, leading to fluctuations in oil and gas prices which can affect consumers and industries globally.
  • Supply chain disruptions. Offshore industries are part of an intricate supply chain. Disruptions can have ripple effects on related industries such as shipping, refining, and manufacturing.

Environmental Concerns

Environmental repercussions are closely tied to the offshore industry during hurricanes. Damage to platforms or pipelines can result in oil spills. This not only has immediate ecological effects but can have lasting impacts on marine ecosystems. Apart from oil, other chemicals used in drilling processes can be released into the ocean, further damaging the marine environment.

Offshore companies must take preventative measures to minimize these risks, through:

  • Storm-resistant designs: Building platforms and infrastructure with storm-resistant designs minimizes the chance of spills and leaks.
  • Emergency shutdown systems: Having systems in place that can quickly shut down operations and seal off pipelines can minimize spills. Oil and gas companies must implement shutdown procedures early enough to give crews time to evacuate.

The Consequences of Poor Hurricane Preparedness & Response

When maritime and offshore companies do not implement hurricane preparedness plans, crews and the environment will be put needlessly at risk. NOAA continues to make improvements in the way it predicts and monitors hurricane activity. Offshore companies must heed warnings and take swift, proactive measures to shut-in operations and evacuate crews.

In 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard had to be called to the rescue of 142 crew members aboard the Globetrotter II, after they were left to weather Hurricane Ida. 150-mph winds and 80-foot waves battered the drillship, leaving the crew with catastrophic physical and mental trauma.

In 2020, the Deepwater Asgard was almost lost in Hurricane Zeta. The rig was still attached when the storm struck, nearly snapping its riser pipe and blowing the drillship into shallow waters.

The 2023 Atlantic hurricane season’s prediction for near-normal activity does not reduce the importance of being prepared. Even a single hurricane can have devastating impacts on the offshore industry and its workers.

It is imperative that the offshore industry pays close attention to NOAA’s forecasts and takes proactive measures to ensure the safety of offshore workers and minimize environmental impacts. Offshore companies must work in conjunction with state and local officials to ensure preparedness and safety for all those involved.

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