The climate of the Virgin Islands is subtropical and humid, moderated by easterly trade winds. Seasonal changes in weather are subtle. The hottest month of the year is July, when high temperatures can reach 90°F. During the coolest winter months, December and January, high temperatures reach the low 80s. Humidity generally ranges from 70 to 80 percent, peaking in July.
Historically, the Virgin Islands receive about 40 inches of rain per year. The wettest months are September, October, and November, when it seems to rain just about every day. January, February, and March are the driest months. Rain arrives quickly, falls heavily, and moves off just as suddenly as it came. If you visit during a rainy month, you will quickly realize that the best prescription against getting wet is to just seek shelter and wait out the rain.
The windiest months are December and January, when the so-called Christmas Winds pass through. These delightful air currents of 25–30 knots bring cool air from northern climes, making these months ideal for sailing and generally cooler. From November to June you can count on northeast winds of 15–20 knots consistently. In May, June, and July the summer doldrums hit and winds taper off; southeast winds of 10–15 knots are common. These are the worst months for sailing, and some of the hottest. In September and October the weather tends to be unsettled.
Days are longer in the summer, with sunrise coming close to 5 a.m. and sunset around 7 p.m. At the peak of winter, sunrise is much closer to 6 a.m. and the sun sets at 6 p.m. Tides are minimal this close to the equator, with a range of about 12 inches; you probably won’t even notice tidal fluctuations.
The Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1 and ends November 30, peaking in September. An old rhyme puts it fairly accurately: “June, too soon. July, stand by. August, it must. September, remember. October, all over.”
The word hurricane comes from the Taino deity Jurakan, their god of malevolence and destruction. For these ancient seafarers, the destructive capacity of a hurricane was compounded by the fact that they arrived virtually unannounced.
In more modern times, the only warning one had of a storm was a sudden drop in barometric pressure just before the storm would strike. Older residents of Road Town, in the British Virgin Islands, can still remember the days when a government agent would monitor the barometer and ride through town on horseback warning people when the pressure took a sudden downward turn.
Today, the National Hurricane Center in Florida tracks and predicts hurricanes, and islanders have several days’ notice before a storm strikes. Keeping an ear out for the tropical weather forecast is a daily feature of life in many households.
Evacuation is not generally practiced—except for tourists. Most people ride out the storm by boarding up windows and hunkering down with canned food, lots of extra water, flashlights, and battery-operated radios. Some homes also have standby generators. Builders use the latest hurricane-resistant building technology: impact glass for windows and hurricane clips for roofs, for example. Mariners moor their boats at established hurricane holes, coves where wind and wave action are blocked. On top of that, local disaster management offices are well equipped and experienced in mitigation and response.
The Virgin Islands have experienced several devastating hurricanes. Storms in 1867, 1916, and 1924 wiped out whole towns. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo razed the Virgin Islands, St. Croix in particular. Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 dealt an especially devastating blow to St. Thomas. In 1999, Hurricane Lenny doused the entire region with heavy rains.
In addition to damage to buildings, roads, and boats, hurricanes can exact a cost on the natural environment. Waves from a hurricane can damage coral reefs, and the terrestrial destruction affects habitat for a number of creatures. Some species, including many predators, benefit from the disturbance of a hurricane, however.
Travelers who book trips to the Virgin Islands during hurricane season, and especially during the peak month of September, would be wise to also buy trip insurance in case your plans are disrupted by a storm.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition