The first hurricane forecast of 2017 from Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science calls for a slightly below average season and 11 named storms this year.
Researchers believe the formation of storms will be suppressed by an impending El Niño, the phenomenon of warmer-than-average water temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific.
The warmer waters tend to strengthen high-altitude winds that swirl over the tropical Atlantic Ocean, essentially blowing apart storms and making it harder for them to condense into dangerous cyclones.
"El Niños are good news for the Atlantic," said the forecast's lead author, Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at the university. "It's not 100 percent, but it's looking more likely than not that El Niño will come."
The forecast will be updated on June 1, the official start of hurricane season. This year's forecast is slightly lower than the median of 12 storms between 1981 and 2010.
The report also predicts that there will be six hurricanes among those 11 named storms: four hurricanes and two major hurricanes, which are Category 3 storms and above with sustained wind speeds of at least 111 mph. The medians between 1981 and 2010 were 6.5 hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
The forecast also suggests a lower-than-normal chance of cyclones making landfall along the U.S. coastline.
Colorado State's initial forecast last year underestimated what turned into a hyperactive storm season, which included Hurricane Hermine, the first hurricane in 11 years to make landfall in Florida. Hermine, a Category 1 storm when it came ashore in Apalachee Bay on Sept. 2, wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast and caused significant damage to shore towns like Cedar Key. In all, the storm killed two people and caused an estimated $550 million damage.
Weeks later, Hurricane Matthew tore through the Caribbean as a Category 5 storm and skirted Florida's Atlantic coast on Oct. 7, weakened but still dangerous. Even though it never made landfall, Matthew did an incredible amount of damage. There were 585 deaths linked to the storm, more than 90 percent of which were in Haiti.
In the U.S., there were 34 deaths, including two people who died in Florida as a direct result of Matthew. The hurricane forced more than 3 million people to evacuate from coastal regions in the southeastern and mid-atlantic states. It also caused about $10 billion of damage in the U.S. alone, making it the 10th most destructive hurricane to affect the nation.
During Florida's unprecedented hurricane drought, experts warned that millions of people moved into the state who had never experienced hurricanes before and were unfamiliar with the dangers. And they feared that longtime Floridians had also grown complacent.
"The 2016 hurricane season showed the state of Florida that yeah, we really are vulnerable to hurricanes," said Dennis Feltgen, meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center. "This was an experience to people who had never been through one and a wake up call to those who had experience with them."
Will Floridians be more prepared this year?
"I would think so," he said. "Particularly those that were directly impacted by the hurricanes, absolutely."
Another factor contributing to this year's below average outlook is the water temperatures in the tropical and north Atlantic ocean. North Atlantic temperatures have been colder, while tropical Atlantic temperatures plummeted from warmer-than-normal temperatures to cooler-than-normal temperatures in just the last couple weeks. Colder water suppresses hurricanes, which feed on warm water.
Colder Atlantic waters and El Niño would have a synergistic effect, working together to suppress storms. Klotzbach predicts there will be 50 days during which a named storm exists, and 16 hurricane days. The median during that period from 1981 to 2010 is 60.1 and 21.3 days, respectively.
Landfall probabilities, too, are lower than their long-term average. The chance of a hurricane making landfall on the American east coast, including Florida, is 51 percent, according to Klotzbach's forecast. That coast has been hit at least once by a hurricane in 61 of the last 100 years.
The chances of a hurricane striking the entire coastline — including the Gulf of Mexico, so from Maine to the U.S.-Mexican border — is 75 percent. Data suggests the probability of landfall over the last century is 84 percent.
Another thing to keep in mind this year, Klotzbach said, is that there has been a lot of late-season hurricane activity in recent years.
September, he said, is normally the peak of the season, "but last year was an unusual season in that it was pretty quiet through September, and then October was very active." Last year, Hurricane Nicole struck Bermuda in October and Hurricane Otto formed in late November, making it the latest storm on record to form in the Atlantic.
Even though Colorado State's forecast for this year calls for a less active season and below normal chances of a storm making landfall, Klotzbach said it's important for residents up and down the coast to keep their guard up.
"Even if our forecasts are dead on perfect, we can't predict where the storms are going to go," he said, "and it only takes one for it to be an active season for you."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15.