Warm waters brewing in the eastern Pacific Ocean could curb hurricane formation just as the season typically intensifies.
El Niño, an atmospheric phenomenon defined by the development of warm surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean and an eastward wind shear, looks likely to develop sometime in coming months, the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center said Thursday.
The sooner El Niño develops the more likely it is to slow down hurricane season during its busiest stretch, the Cape Verde season, when storms form in waters off the African coast and intensify as they travel across the Atlantic Ocean.
If the water doesn't warm enough to affect the climate until winter, when El Niño typically develops, the Tampa Bay area might just see a lot more rain, according to the center's most recent outlook, published Thursday.
"The greatest likelihood is we'll see it in late fall, maybe early winter," said Mike Halpert, the center's deputy director. "But it wouldn't be surprising to me if we were declaring El Niño in the next couple of months."
Hurricane season, which began June 1, had four named storms in its first month — the most since the National Hurricane Center began keeping records in the late 1800s.
Tropical Storm Debby, the most recent, wreaked havoc on the Tampa Bay area with unrelenting rain, floods and dangerously strong gusts of winds that lasted for days.
All this in the first month of a hurricane season that was predicted to be relatively quiet, with a total of nine to 15 named storms expected during the six-month hurricane season. Of those, four to eight are expected to become hurricanes.
But much of the hurricane center's prediction hinges on an early El Niño formation.
"If (El Niño) develops by late summer, it could shift the overall hurricane activity toward the lower end of our range," Oceanic and Atmospheric Research director Robert Detrick said of the predictions.
If El Niño doesn't develop until later in the year, hurricane season likely will be unaffected, and could tilt toward the higher end of NOAA's predicted range.
The phenomenon of El Niño usually forms every three to five years as warm surface waters in the Pacific Ocean shift from west to east. Those warmer waters form upper atmospheric storms that can thwart hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
But they can also cause problems during winter months.
If El Niño strikes late, storms will track closer to the Gulf of Mexico, bringing wetter weather to the Tampa Bay area and much of the Gulf Coast, according to NOAA.
Only time, Halpert said, can tell.
While El Niño can dramatically reduce hurricane formation, it does not eliminate it.
Hurricane Andrew, one of history's most devastating storms, struck Homestead, south of Miami, in August 1992, an El Niño year.
Marissa Lang can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804.