TAMPA, Fla. - With the onset of the 2005 hurricane season little more than two weeks away, meteorologists warned yesterday that conditions in the Atlantic were again ripe for spawning tropical storms that could slam into Florida or other parts of the Eastern United States or Gulf Coast with potentially devastating and deadly consequences.
Last season, Florida was hit by four hurricanes in six weeks, an unprecedented succession of natural disasters that was blamed for 123 deaths and more than $42 billion in property damage in the state.
Although predicting where and when storms will make landfall is impossible, forecasters attending Florida's 19th annual Governor's Hurricane Conference agreed that the Atlantic Ocean was in the throes of an active period that could last two decades or more and that the resulting increase in the number of tropical storms heightened the chance of one or more reaching the United States.
"We're in a new era now, and we're going to see a lot more major storms," said William Gray, a professor in Colorado State University's department of atmospheric science, who issues a much-awaited yearly prediction of hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin.
The most recent calculations by Gray and his research associate Philip J. Klotzbach, presented on the final day of the conference, call for a 73 percent chance that a major hurricane - defined as one carrying sustained winds of 111 mph or more - will hit the U.S. coast sometime during the 2005 season, which begins June 1 and lasts through the end of November.
There was a 53 percent chance of a major hurricane making landfall this year in the Florida Peninsula, they said, and a 41 percent likelihood of one coming ashore somewhere along the Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to Texas.
"Right now, the Atlantic looks very favorable for storms," Klotzbach told the conference. "The sea surface temperatures are incredibly warm, much warmer than normal, and the sea level pressures have been quite low."
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, alerted the 2,900 government officials, emergency responders, representatives of private charities and others attending the weeklong event that they might be in for another very busy hurricane season.
"I can tell you that we have had more tropical storms, and more hurricanes, since 1995 than any other 10-consecutive- year period on record," Mayfield said Wednesday. "So, folks, we're in this active period, like it or not."
Gray explained that the rising salinity of a vast stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, caused by evaporation, was causing a wide current to flow north, pulling warmer water from the South Atlantic and tropics. The added heat carried by that water, he said, helps spawn hurricanes.
The existence of the salty current, called the thermohaline circulation, correlates with periods of intense hurricane activity, Gray said. The last active phase lasted from the 1930s to the mid-'60s. The Atlantic, he said, was relatively quiet from the late 1960s to the mid-'90s.
"In a way, you didn't know how lucky you all living in Florida were," Gray told the conference, which Gov. Jeb Bush attended Wednesday. Gray predicted a "bleak picture" in terms of increased major hurricane activity for the next 15 to 20 years.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.