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Focus of hurricane season may soon shift to Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico

The busy 2010 hurricane so far has been good to Florida.

But for Tampa Bay, the greatest threat is still to come.

Year in and year out, hurricanes that form in October in the Caribbean Sea present the most serious concern for the west Florida shoreline.

As storms originating in the east Atlantic Ocean begin to taper off, the focus shifts west. And one reliable computer model already is pointing to the possibility of storm development in the Caribbean later this month, said Mike Clay, chief meteorologist for Bay News 9.

"In the western Caribbean the water is still very warm and atmospheric pressures are very low, meaning it's easy for a storm to get going there," said Clay. "West Florida has been hit in October more than any other month."

The last major storm to hit Florida's west coast was Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. The last time a hurricane directly hit Tampa Bay was in October 1921, a storm that formed in the Caribbean.

It has already been a busy hurricane season, with 11 named storms, five of them major hurricanes with winds exceeding 111 mph, and 10 weeks still remain in the 2010 season.

Warm ocean temperatures, a busy monsoon season in west Africa and a strengthening La Niña combined to create favorable conditions for development of hurricanes in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.

"It's been pretty much as we predicted in our seasonal outlooks," said Gerry Bell, lead hurricane seasonal forecaster for NOAA's climate prediction center. "Everything has been in place."

The seasonal Bermuda High, a vast area of high pressure in the central Atlantic Ocean, has been a key player, keeping hurricanes away from U.S. landfall.

At this time of the year, hurricanes originating off the west African coast often tend to track around the Bermuda High, a vast clockwise-turning area of high pressure in the central Atlantic Ocean.

Storms forming in the east Atlantic generally tend to move west until they reach the western edge of the Bermuda High, or a weak spot within the high, then take a more northerly track.

Several storms or hurricanes already have taken that route, sparing the U.S. coastline.

But the focus is about to change.

The storms originating in the Cape Verde area of the east Atlantic have been nourished by a busy west African monsoon season, which usually is July, August and September.

"By the first 10 days of October, that begins to trail off significantly," Bell said. "Once you get into October, these storms no longer tend to form in the east Atlantic because conditions are no longer favorable."

Warmer water temperatures and atmospheric conditions, among other factors, make hurricanes more likely to form in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico.

Bell, noting the United States has been largely spared this year, said we likely will see several more storms.

"Typically when you have busy seasons like this, you have U.S. strikes," Bell said. "We were fortunate early, but that could change."

Focus of hurricane season may soon shift to Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico 09/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 20, 2010 7:20am]
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