Expect Above Average Atlantic Hurricane Season, Say Forecasters

The nation’s annual forecast about how many hurricanes the Atlantic Ocean will churn up is now more like the daily weather report.

Forecasters added probabilities to their 2008 report. It’s the same sort of caveat that television meteorologists use in their reports in case tomorrow features rain clouds instead of sunshine.

This year’s best guess: A 60 to 70 percent chance the Atlantic will produce 12 to 16 named storms and two to five major hurricanes. There’s a 90 percent chance the season will be normal or above average.

While the projection has generally been a reliable barometer of the six-month Atlantic hurricane season which begins June 1, officials worry coastal residents will ignore it if they think it’s not accurate. For instance, last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted 13 to 17 named storms, seven to 10 hurricanes; three of which would be major. In reality, there were 15 named storms, six hurricanes; two of which were major.

But none of the severe storms made landfall in the United States, and officials fear people will become complacent.

“Basically it was interpreted as a 100 percent chance,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead forecaster for Atlantic hurricanes.

“What matters here for people is that we’re indicating there’s going to be quite a bit of activity this season,” Bell said. “Whether it falls in that particular range or not is really secondary.”

In other words, just as people reach for their umbrellas when the morning news projects a 60 percent chance of rain, federal officials are hoping the hurricane forecast will spur residents to use roughly 10 days before hurricane season to prepare.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison, who took over after the devastating 2005 season that ravaged New Orleans, said his agency is now better prepared to handle disasters. Reminding residents that bags of ice would no longer be distributed after storms, Paulison said people need to use the forecast and take some “personal responsibility.”

Predicting the weather is naturally a tricky proposition, and the NOAA forecast relies on climate data to make its long-range projections. It is developed with help from experts at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, which is responsible for predicting where storms are likely to make landfall.

Even on the eve of hurricane season, Bell and others say they don’t yet know what role phenomena such as La Nina, which cools water temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean, will have this year. The cooler waters generally reduce the wind shear that can rip apart Atlantic hurricanes before they gain strength, Bell said.

Another notable hurricane prognosticator, Colorado State University weather researcher William Gray, expects 15 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major this year. He was also off the mark last year, predicting 17 named storms, including nine hurricanes, five of them major.

But NOAA’s forecast relies on something that is certain: yesterday’s weather. Using more than a century’s worth of climate data, Bell said the Atlantic has been in a period of increased hurricane activity since the mid-1990s.

“The same conditions that we’re seeing now we saw back in the 1950s and 60s,” Bell said.