El Nino stirring

mood uncertain

Weather effect too late to check hurricanes but may bring strong rains to Southeast U.S.

September 10, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The global weather bully El Nino is waking up but might not have enough strength for another several weeks to swat the life out of hurricanes.

"By then the hurricane season is pretty much over with," said Vernon Kousky, a research meteorologist at the national Climate Prediction Center in Maryland.

But that's not the only reason to watch out for the birth of an El Nino.

The weather pattern generally brings wetter, cooler winters to the Southeast, meaning powerful thunderstorms could afflict Florida this fall, winter and spring.

The prediction center announced late this week that temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along the equator had climbed 1 degree - strong evidence that an El Nino is taking shape.

El Nino - which means "the little boy" or "Christ child" in Spanish - is so named because it was first recognized off the coast of South America as an event that often occurred near Christmas.

An El Nino throws ordinary weather patterns out of whack for a year or even two, which can be a mixed blessing for Florida and other Southern states.

El Nino swats down hurricanes because it can unleash westerly winds that shred the storms. Although predictions don't extend to next year's hurricane season, if El Nino sticks around that long, it could mean fewer hurricanes.

For the coming months, forecasters are waiting to see whether El Nino forces the high-altitude jet stream to swerve deeply into the nation's South, stirring up extraordinary weather from late fall to early spring.

"That just spells all kinds of activity," Kousky said. "Just storm after storm."

Florida has had some of its rainiest years on record because of the weather shift.

Kousky doesn't think El Nino will form fully in time to put a damper on this year's hurricane season.

Conditions remain mostly normal in the Pacific Ocean along the equator. When El Nino is in play, that region can turn stormy, he said.

Still, hurricane experts are struggling to understand why the current season has been so quiet when predictions had warned of more hurricanes than usual.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had predicted there would be as many as 16 named storms and 10 hurricanes this year. The agency recently cut its prediction by one named storm and one hurricane. On average, early to mid-September is the busiest part of the hurricane season. There have been only six named storms and one hurricane. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

Forecasters at Colorado State University, a team that includes expert William Gray, also recently reduced the number of hurricanes they expect this year to five.

They attributed that to persistently dry air over the Atlantic Ocean.

Another factor causing a quieter hurricane season is "a continued trend towards El Nino-like conditions," according to the university team of researchers.

Jeffrey Masters, director of meteorology at the popular Weather Underground Web site, said wind shear has been about normal this year.

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