Hurricane Forecasters Who Got Mild ’06 Right Warn of Active ’07

April 23, 2007

The up-and-coming hurricane researchers who accurately predicted a mild 2006 storm season, despite dire predictions of more established forecasters, said the 2007 season will be much more active — especially in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two teams of researchers at North Carolina State University, in their third year of hurricane forecasting, released separate results for the first time last week.

One team, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, projected that 16 to 17 named storms would form in the Atlantic basin, including eight to nine hurricanes. Two or three hurricanes will make landfall on the East Coast, while one or two would strike the Gulf Coast, according to team predictions.

“Everything shows that it’s going to be a much busier year than last year,” said Len Pietrafesa, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric science at N.C. State who contributed to the team.

The second squad of forecasters estimated the Atlantic basin will brew 12 to 13 named storms and eight to nine hurricanes, including four or five major hurricanes. Researchers said there is a 75 percent chance a hurricane will make landfall along the eastern seaboard and an equally strong chance that a hurricane will hit the Gulf of Mexico coastline.

“All in all, it’s going to be an active year,” said lead researcher Lian Xie, an N.C. State professor of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography.

The team also estimated a 56 percent chance that a major hurricane will strike the Gulf Coast, and a 10 percent chance of a major hurricane striking the southeast coast. Storms with sustained winds of at least 111 mph are considered major hurricanes.

“We’re seeing a very active Gulf of Mexico, similar to some of the past active seasons,” Xie said, adding that the eastern seaboard will have above-average activity in the south and a calm season in the north.

In 2006, the N.C. State teams worked together to predict that five or six hurricanes would form in the Atlantic Ocean east of the United States, and one or two hurricanes would strike the East Coast. Five hurricanes formed that year and none made landfall. A total of 10 named Atlantic storms formed in 2006.

William Gray, who has become the nation’s most reliable hurricane forecaster over the past 24 years, had estimated last season would produce 17 named storms and nine hurricanes, but he later revised his projections downward. The National Hurricane Center also predicted an active hurricane season, saying 13 to 16 named storms would form.

“At first, it took us some courage to believe our model,” Xie said, adding that unlike other forecasters, his team focused only on storms that developed off the Atlantic coast. “But we’re also careful not to say that our model is better than other people’s model.”

This year, Gray, based at Colorado State University, predicted a total of 17 named storms including at least nine hurricanes, five of them major. The National Hurricane Center will issue its forecast for the 2007 season in late May.

N.C. State forecasters also accurately predicted the 2005 storm total while focusing on storms along the East Coast, saying at the time that five to six hurricanes would form along the eastern seaboard and two or three would make landfall. The season produced seven hurricanes from that region — two of which hit the East Coast.

This year, the N.C. State scientists have expanded their unique model to analyze how many storms will make landfall in the Gulf of Mexico and how many will make landfall along the Atlantic seaboard.

The teams focus much of their research on the difference in water temperatures between the north Atlantic and south Atlantic. If tropical water is warmer than normal in the north and cooler than normal in the south, hurricane activity increases, Xie said.

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