The Weather Channel Launched 40 Years Ago. One of the Strongest El Niños and Least Active Hurricane Stretches Followed. | The Weather Channel – Articles from The Weather Channel

  • The Weather Channel launched 40 years ago on May 2, 1982.
  • Two of the least active hurricane seasons in modern times followed the launch.
  • This was due, in part, to one of the strongest El Niños on record.

The Weather Channel is celebrating its 40th anniversary this May and while recognized as a trusted source for hurricane coverage, there were not many hurricanes in its first couple of years, due in part to an intense El Niño.

On May 2, 1982, The Weather Channel flipped the switch and became the first 24-hour cable weather network.

The weather that day could hardly have been quieter.

High pressure dominated much of the country on May 2, 1982, as the map below shows.

There was such an episode of the first broadcast hit “High Plains heat” with a graphic showing Mount Rushmore sweating.

A surface map analysis on the morning of May 2, 1982, showed high pressure in control over much of the country.


Hurricane Season Snooze

The launch was about four weeks before the 1982 hurricane season. Surely that would be a test of the new network’s capabilities, right?

It started in the southern Gulf of Mexico in early June, flooding out parts of western Cuba and soaking South Florida. But the storm fizzled after a sudden hurricane hit the Florida Keys.

While the “unnamed” June tropical storm was found in later post-analysis from Florida to the coastal Carolinas, the rest of the 1982 hurricane season was largely a dud.

The second named storm, Beryl, didn’t form until late August and fizzled north of the Leeward Islands. Tropical Storm Chris moved ashore near the Texas-Louisiana border in September, triggering some flooding in parts of Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi Valley.

One week later, Hurricane Debby reached Category 4 intensity, but well off the East Coast. The season’s last named storm, Tropical Storm Ernesto, vanished by Oct. 3 in the central Atlantic Ocean.

Six storms, two hurricanes and one major hurricane were the official tally in 1982. It was the fewest hurricanes in any year since the Atlantic Basin in the 1960s, and a record later tied in 2013.

It also tied 1977 for the fewest storms in the satellite season, half the annual average of 12 named storms from 1981 through 2010.

Track the history of the five named storms, and one unnamed storm, from the 1982 Atlantic hurricane season.

(Data: NOAA / NHC)

1983 Even Quieter *

Amazingly, by some measures, the second hurricane season The Weather Channel covered even quieter than the first, with a very big exception, which we’ll discuss a bit later.

Only four named storms formed in the whole 1983 Atlantic hurricane season, still the fewest in the satellite era.

That lack of activity seems hard to comprehend these days. During the peak of the record-smashing 2020 hurricane season, four or five named storms were active simultaneously.

1983’s storms were all compressed into a six-week span from mid-August – when Hurricane Alicia first formed – to the end of September, when Tropical Storm Dean fizzled inland.

Track history of the four named storms from the 1983 Atlantic hurricane season.

(Data: NOAA / NHC)

Using the ACE index – short for Accumulated Cyclone Energy – not only counting storms and hurricanes but .

The three least active Atlantic hurricane seasons (since 1966) as measured by the ACE index, contrasting with the most active such season, in 2005.

(Data: NOAA / NHC via Phil Klotzbach / Colorado State University; Graph: Infogram)

Super El Niño

It wasn’t a jinx from launching a 24-hour TV weather network.

There was a reason why these two hurricane seasons were so strangely quiet: The development of one of the strongest El Niños on record.

El Niño is the periodic warming of ocean water near the equator in the Pacific Ocean east of the International Date Line.

The 1982-83 El Niño first appeared in spring 1982, intensified through the hurricane season, then eroded by the following summer. You can see this in the animation below denoted by the warm contours near the equator.

Animation of sea-surface temperature anomalies from spring 1982 through fall 1983 illustrating the strong El Niño that formed in the eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator.


It was one of the three strongest El Niños since the mid-20th century, both in the magnitude of the warmth and how long it lasted.

This is because the equator, but far removed as well.

In the El Niño, upper-level westerly winds are stronger than usual over the Caribbean Sea and adjacent stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. These are the most powerful in the north. This shears, or rips apart, tropical systems, including active storms and those disturbances trying to organize into tropical storms.

Not only are these westerly winds aloft stronger in El Niños, but they also sink.

When that happens, the air dries out and warms up, making the atmosphere more stable. A more stable atmosphere suppresses the development of thunderstorms, the building blocks of tropical storms. Dry air ingested into thunderstorms can push other thunderstorms away from low pressure, which does not allow them to cluster and generate the heat needed to form a tropical storm.

Even if the El Niño weakens into summer as it did in 1983, its effects in the atmosphere can lag for a few months after the ocean cools.

The National Hurricane Center wrote on the first page of their season summaries.

Hurricane Alicia: It Only Took One

While it was the least active hurricane season in the satellite era, 1983 it is also the best example illustrating that one or more destructive landfalls can occur even in the quietest years.

In mid-August, Alicia went from a tropical depression in the northern Gulf of Mexico to a landfalling Category 3 hurricane near Galveston, Texas, in less than 72 hours.

Tom Moore The Weather Channel was one of the original meteorologists who happened to make his on-air debut just before Alicia developed.

“I showed a radar from Slidell, Louisiana, showing a cluster of thunderstorms (in the Gulf of Mexico),” Moore told in an email. “I remember saying on the radar segment that we were always keeping an eye on the convection in the Gulf because they sometimes develop into tropical systems.”

Moore said the remnant spin from a large cluster of thunderstorms that slid south through the Lower Mississippi Valley up with a dissipating old front parked over the northern Gulf.

“These features came together, thunderstorms began to develop and expand, eventually forming Alicia,” Moore said.

In less than three days, Alicia went from a tropical depression to a Category 3 hurricane as it came ashore near Galveston, Texas.  Windows shattered in Houston skyscrapers as gravel from roofs flew through the air.  Galveston reported a 98-mph wind gust along with nine feet of storm surge on the Gulf side of the island.  The Category 3 storm caused $ 2 billion in damage ($ 4.5 billion in 2010 dollars) and took 21 lives.  (Infrared satellite image on August 18, 1983; NOAA)

Infrared satellite image of Hurricane Alicia on Aug. 18, 1983 as it made landfall in southeast Texas.


Alicia roared ashore on Aug. 18, 1983. Wind gusts over 100 mph shattered windows in downtown Houston skyscrapers. 9 feet of storm surge pushed onto the Gulf side of Galveston Island.

Alicia caused $ 2 billion ($ 8.5 billion in 2021 dollars) in damage in the US and claimed 21 lives.

The Weather Channel on a Precipice

The Weather Channel overcame numerous obstacles before and after the launch, which is nicely detailed in former chairman and CEO Frank Batten’s 2002 book, “The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon.”

In summer 1983, The Weather Channel was in dire straits from Landmark Communications, a Norfolk, Virginia, based media company, took full control.

It was losing about $ 1 million a month after the initial investment of $ 32 million and was searching for a buyer.

As detailed in “The Improbable Rise of a Media Phenomenon,” just as plans were made to shut the network down, Landmark executives Frank Batten Sr. and Dubby Wynne heard from cable operators offering to keep the network on the air.

By the end of 1983, the Weather Channel has signed contracts with The Weather Channel.

“Extrapolating from that base, we thought we could break even in 1986,” Batten wrote.

The Weather Channel’s “meteorological laboratory” in 1982 with forecasters Al Lipson (left) and on-camera meteorologist Dennis Smith.

(Tom Moore)

Amid those discussions and turmoil came Hurricane Alicia, the first US hurricane landfall in the network’s history.

While Alicia was a destructive, deadly hurricane along the upper Texas coast, it also happened to strike the No. 1 cable TV market at the time – Houston.

Calmly walking viewers through Alicia was the man who would eventually become the network’s first hurricane expert, John Hope.

After a distinguished career in the US Weather Bureau, the Spaceflight Meteorology Group and one of the five founding meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center, Hope helped launch The Weather Channel in 1982.

“Never before has the public had access to detailed information,” said Moore, who worked with Hope through the 2001 hurricane season, before Hope passed away from complications after heart surgery in 2002. “He was brimming with credibility and our viewers became attached to him. He really became the ‘face’ of The Weather Channel. “

(WATCH: Jim Cantore’s Tribute to John Hope)

The Weather Channel would cover another 67 mainland US landfalling hurricanes after Alicia through 2021. But one could argue its first 12 to 18 months was the most formidable storm it faced.

Want to learn more? Watch The Weather Channel’s first broadcast here, anchored by meteorologists Bruce Edwards and Andre Bernier.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

Leave a Comment