MIAMI -- Thank El Nino - for now. The same weather phenomenon that could bring a cooler, damper winter is tamping down hurricane activity so much that a leading forecaster again downgraded his prediction for the remainder of the 2006 hurricane season.
In a report released yesterday, Colorado State University atmospheric scientist William Gray said he expects El Nino conditions to spawn only two more named storms in the Atlantic basin this year - both this month - with only one of them growing into a minimal Category 1 or 2 hurricane.
If Gray and his lead research associate, Phil Klotzbach, are correct, the 2006 season will end up being almost average, instead of the much busier one they and federal forecasters had expected. Before the six-month season began June 1, Gray's team predicted 17 named storms and nine hurricanes, with five of those growing into intense or major storms of Category 3 or higher.
But so far, the Atlantic basin has spawned nine named storms and five hurricanes, two of them intense. An average season produces almost 10 named storms, six of which become hurricanes, with two of those becoming major ones.
"Of course we could be wrong because, as we just verified, our predictions are not perfect," Klotzbach said. "But people usually complain more if you forecast a little and there's a lot than if we forecast a lot and there's a little."
At the National Hurricane Center in Miami, hurricane specialist Dan Brown said Gray's revised forecast doesn't mean Atlantic Coast states should let down their guard. Though favorable steering currents have kept all of this year's hurricanes away from the United States, two pesky tropical storms - Alberto and Ernesto - hit Florida, which in the previous two years had been battered by an unprecedented eight hurricanes.
As forecasters routinely note, even a below-average season can produce devastating surprises. Case in point: Hurricane Andrew pummeled south Miami-Dade County in 1992, which was a slow year for hurricanes, producing six named storms.
So far, this year's surprise is El Nino, which is characterized by warming waters in the equatorial Pacific. As late as July, forecasters weren't expecting the weather phenomenon that can affect global patterns to emerge. But in August it did - bringing with it the shearing winds that Klotzbach and Gray expect to inhibit hurricane formation in the Caribbean this month.
"That's the reason we're calling for an inactive October - because October hurricanes usually form in the Caribbean, and closer to the U.S. coastline, and that's where El Nino puts the strongest wind shear," Klotzbach said.
Maya Bell writes for the Orlando Sentinel.