Could a category 5 hurricane hit New York City?

If the right set of atmospheric parameters came together, would it be enough to produce a category 5 hurricane that could hit New York City? Read what it would take for this to happen and find out if it is actually possible.

Has a category five hurricane ever hit New York City? Not according to historical records since the founding of this country. The only major hurricane to hit anywhere nearby was the 1938 hurricane known as the "Long Island Express". It was a category three that made landfall on Long Island well east of New York City and into New England. More recently a category 2 Hurricane Sandy became extratropical before moving inland over southern New Jersey. In addition, Hurricane Donna (1960) made landfall east of New York City as category 2 hurricane. Hurricane Gloria in 1985 weakened from a category 2 to category 1 as it was making landfall, also east of New York City. So, is it that a category five hurricane can't hit New York City or is it simply that the right conditions haven't formed yet?

There are several preconditions that need to take place before a hurricane can form. There needs to be a pre-existing disturbance, warm ocean water, low atmospheric stability, sufficient Coriolis force, a moist mid level of the atmosphere, low vertical wind shear, and divergence in the upper troposphere. Out of all of the parameters, all are possible for the exception of possibly one factor. A critical component for hurricane formation, especially major ones, is to have warm enough water to fuel the hurricane heat engine. Water temperatures need to be 80 degrees to a depth of about 50 meters or about 150 feet.

Nearly all category five hurricanes are found in the deep tropics. Water temperatures are usually in the low to mid 80's over a large expanse of ocean water. There have been four category five hurricanes to hit the United States since records began in the late 1800's: The Florida Keys hurricane of 1935, Camille which hit Mississippi in 1969, Andrew which hit south Florida in 1992 and Michael in 2018 that was upgraded to a cat 5 in post-season analysis which hit the Florida panhandle. Out of these four, Camille and Michael formed in the western Caribbean Sea, Andrew formed in the deep tropics and the 1935 Hurricane formed north of the Caribbean. These regions of the Caribbean and Atlantic have large areas of warm water. Most category five hurricanes never make it as far north as the United States. The greatest threat is farther south toward the Caribbean over the open waters of the tropical Atlantic.

The Gulf Stream carries warm water northward east of Long Island. The water temperatures are at times sufficient for hurricane development even this far north. The Gulf Stream is a narrow ribbon of warm water instead of a large expanse found in the deep tropics. For a category five hurricane to form not only does the water need to be warm, it usually needs to be several degrees past the threshold of 80 degrees. Major hurricanes usually go through a rapid deepening cycle which coincides with the tropical cyclone sitting over a large area of ocean water at 83-84 degrees with "hot spots" of 85 or 86 degrees. The warmer the water, the more energy available for the hurricane heat engine to make a stronger hurricane. The 1938 hurricane was a category three hurricane east of New York, but there is a large difference between a category three and five. The 1938 hurricane also moved very quickly north, limiting its time over cooler water, and slowing its weakening.

For a category five hurricane to hit New York City, it would have to form well to the south over a larger expanse of warm water. The hurricane would have to strengthen to levels that only a few hurricanes have ever reached - 175 mph or stronger somewhere east of the Bahamas. After this a strong upper trough would need to approach from the west to quickly move the hurricane northward before it lost category five strength which is greater than 156 mph. There are problems with this scenario possibly unfolding. First, the strong winds needed to usher the hurricane northward before it lost energy would also very likely shear it and cause weakening. Second, without a push from strong winds aloft, even if the hurricane was very strong, it would still weaken as it encountered cooler water. New York City and the northeast many times are protected by cooler water off of the New England coast as well as upper jet stream winds which cause shearing.

So, can a category five hurricane hit New York City? The chances are extremely low, as close to saying "no" as possible. It is probable that another category three will visit New England or New York City. A category four with top sustained winds between 130-156 mph is also very, very unlikely, but not impossible. Keep in mind that a category three hurricane in itself could cause catastrophic damage with winds of 111-129 mph and a major storm tide. So, New York City is most likely safe from ever seeing a category five hurricane, but extensive damage can still be inflicted by a much weaker one.

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