2006 hurricane forecast: tamer than record 2005, but still active

17 named storms expected

East Coast at twice the average risk


Next year's hurricane season will be rather slow, with 17 named storms, including nine hurricanes, five of them intense, experts predicted yesterday.

Slow, that is, compared with this year's record-shattering season, which, with Hurricane Epsilon churning in the central Atlantic yesterday, has extended beyond the season's official end Nov. 30.

If yesterday's preliminary prediction by hurricane forecaster William Gray holds true, the 2006 season will be almost twice as active as a typical season, which includes 10 named storms, including six hurricanes, two of them intense, which means winds greater than 110 mph.

The outlook for next year calls for an 81 percent chance that at least one major hurricane will strike the United States. The long-term average is 52 percent.

The East Coast stands a 64 percent chance of getting hit by an intense hurricane, more than double the long-term average of 31 percent, the forecasters say.

Gray and his Colorado State University forecast team expect fewer major hurricanes to hit the United States than in the past two years.

Another active year is likely, however, because the atmospheric conditions that made 2005 so active are likely to linger, including warm tropical waters and low wind shear, Gray said.

In addition, neutral or weak La Nina conditions could help foster more hurricane activity, he said. La Nina, a cooling of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, acts to calm the atmosphere and allow hurricanes to intensify.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its seasonal outlook in May. NOAA and Gray's team had predicted that this year would be more active than usual, but they underestimated the number and intensity of the 2005 storms.

Gray projected in December last year that this year's season would include 11 named storms, including six hurricanes, three of them intense. NOAA predicted up to 15 named storms, including up to nine hurricanes, as many as five of them intense.

Those forecasts were far exceeded, with 26 named storms, including an unprecedented 14 hurricanes, seven of them intense. That was more than 2 1/2 times the average number.

Epsilon, a rare December hurricane, is not expected to make landfall.

Forecasters say the sharp increase in hurricanes results from warm water in the Atlantic shifting to the tropics, where hurricanes form and grow. That cycle could last for 10 to 20 years.

The past two seasons have been punishing for the Gulf Coast and Florida. Last year, Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne pummeled Florida. This year, the most destructive season ever, a record four major hurricanes - Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma - hit the Gulf Coast and Florida.

Gray said that is unlikely to continue.

"The probability of seeing another two consecutive hurricane seasons with as many landfalling hurricanes as was witnessed in 2004 and 2005 is very low," he said.

Other experts agree.

"There's never been anything like this, and I don't think there is likely to be anything like it again in our lifetimes," said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist for Weather Underground, a weather-tracking Web site.

Ken Kaye writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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