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National Hurricane Center, Colorado State team adjust hurricane forecasts after slow start to season

We're more than two months into the hurricane season and haven't gotten so much as tease from a named storm. It feels like the makings of another quiet year for Florida, but tell that to those who lived in Homestead on Aug. 24, 1992.

Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 monster with winds up to 165 mph, was the first hurricane of the 1992 season.

"And there were only seven named storms that year," said Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel's well-known hurricane reporter. "That's why I don't do numbers. Just because it's a quiet season doesn't mean it won't be a powerhouse."

This is the quietest start to the Atlantic hurricane season in 17 years.

Pointing to El Niño's calming effects on the Atlantic season so far, some forecasters are adjusting their forecasts downward. Colorado State hurricane experts Phil Klotzbach and Bill Gray lowered their forecast from 11 named storms to 10, and from five hurricanes to four.

The National Hurricane Center also adjusted its outlook Thursday, predicting seven to 11 named storms — down from the earlier outlook of nine to 14 — this season. Three to six of those are predicted to become hurricanes and one or two could be major (winds of 111 mph or more).

"We do expect some activity," said Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "By no means do we expect this season to be dead."

It only feels dead compared to what Florida has seen in the past five years. At the end of July last year, four named storms, including a hurricane, already had formed in the Atlantic.

El Niño, said to occur every three to five years, is a pattern of above-average warm temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This warmth tends to drive strong winds into the upper atmosphere and over the Atlantic, making it harder for tropical storms and hurricanes to form (though easier in the Pacific).

An El Niño means 36 percent fewer named storms in the Atlantic basin than in La Niña years, and storms' intensities are 6 percent lower, according to NOAA data compiled between 1899 to 1996.

But this certainly doesn't mean Floridians should let their guard down, said National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen.

"We've become accustomed to some early-season storms over the years, so it feels like this is a late start," he said. "But remember the 2004 season — which brought us Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — didn't bring a named storm (Hurricane Alex) until July 31."

In fact, in 10 of the past 50 years, the first named storm didn't form until August.

Cantore, who has spent 16 years covering hurricanes, is waiting for the next big one. It could happen any day now.

"This is actually what we call the ramp-up period," he said.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

National Hurricane Center, Colorado State team adjust hurricane forecasts after slow start to season 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 9:52pm]
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