Intense hurricane season forecast

Increase in storms linked to warming of Atlantic from Africa to Caribbean

April 14, 2002|By Ken Kaye | Ken Kaye,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ORLANDO, Fla. - Because the tropical Atlantic has fallen into a new era of intense hurricane activity, this year's season should be an active one, last well into October and pose a serious threat to the United States, government scientists warn.

While they did not predict an exact number of hurricanes, researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the climatic ingredients are in place for intense hurricane development. They say it should be busier than an average season, which has eight to 11 named storms, including five to seven hurricanes.

But their greater concern is there could be three or more major hurricanes, with winds greater than 110 mph, or about double the normal number of intense storms. While major hurricanes account for only 20 percent of the landfalls, they cause about 80 percent of the damage.

"There are these incredible robust signals," said Stanley Goldberg, a NOAA research meteorologist, at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando.

Primary among the factors: El Nino, a warming condition of the eastern Pacific Ocean, is expected to be weak and that should foster more storms. When El Nino is strong it generates upper-level wind shear that rips hurricanes apart.

On the other hand, Chris Landsea, another NOAA research meteorologist, said forecasters won't know El Nino's ultimate strength until about June. "Forecasting what El Nino will do is almost as hard as forecasting how many hurricanes there will be," he said.

Hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

Goldberg said the seven years since 1995 have seen the most intense hurricane activity in history, including 94 named storms, 58 hurricanes and 27 major hurricanes.

Given that the previous 25 years were relatively quiet, that is evidence that the Northern Hemisphere has entered a new era of intense hurricane activity, one that should last another 10 to 40 years, he said.

"All of the sudden, in 1995 things changed," Goldberg said.

The increased activity is linked to a natural warming cycle of the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and the Caribbean, which is the main hurricane development area, he said.

In the past two years, the United States has experienced no hurricane landfalls. That, in large part, is because a trough of low pressure has been protecting the East Coast. But the country's good fortune is coming to an end, Goldberg said.

Another outcropping of the new era: powerful storms develop later into the season. In 2001, for instance, seven systems formed in October and November, including Hurricane Iris, which battered Belize in early October, and Hurricane Michelle, which pounded Cuba in early November.

"October can be a killer month when you're in an active era," Goldberg said.

Landsea said a busy season doesn't necessarily mean more landfalls. But he said even an average season could end up being catastrophic if a storm strikes a populated area.

"An average year is really a lot of activity as far as we're concerned," he said.

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