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NOAA predicts nine to 15 named storms in near-normal hurricane season

After several busy years, hurricane experts are predicting a near-normal season.

Nine to 15 named storms are expected during the six-month hurricane season beginning June 1, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Of those storms, four to eight will likely be hurricanes and one to three will become major hurricanes with wind gusts of at least 111 mph, NOAA officials said.

The prediction is significantly scaled back from last year, which saw 17 named storms and six hurricanes, three of which were Category 3 or higher.

In the 2010 season, 19 named storms formed in the Atlantic, of which 12 were hurricanes.

This change, forecasters said, is largely due to cool sea surface temperatures in the eastern Atlantic, high wind shear and what experts believe will be a game-changing El Niño season, which could thwart hurricane development from August through October.

El Niño, or the development of warm surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, would hamper Atlantic storm development by creating harsh wind shear moving across Central America.

"If (El Niño) develops by late summer, it could shift the overall hurricane activity toward the lower end of our range," said Robert Detrick, director of NOAA's Oceanic and Atmospheric Research division. "But our message is not just about numbers and percents, it's about preparedness."

Experts encouraged the public to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, alluding to Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 hurricane that devastated South Florida in 1992 during a late-starting season that produced only six named storms.

"There's no such thing as just a tropical storm," NOAA hurricane forecaster Gerry Bell said. "There's no such thing as a weak hurricane."

Keep an eye on low pressure to the south

In an unusually active preseason, one storm has already been named in the Atlantic — Tropical Storm Alberto — as another area of low pressure churns in the Caribbean Sea.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the low pressure system was sustaining winds of about 30 mph and gusts of tropical storm force, mainly over water.

Showers, thunderstorms and strong winds were expected to develop further over the weekend. Forecasters said the system had a 40 percent chance of becoming a tropical or subtropical storm by Saturday. These conditions would likely affect the Florida Keys, parts of Cuba, the Bahamas and South Florida, though it's too soon to tell which direction the system will go, meteorologists said.

If the system turns into a named storm, it would be "highly unusual, but not unprecedented" that two named storms developed in the Atlantic before the official kickoff to hurricane season, hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

But experts warn not to read too deeply into the phenomenon.

"Historically there's no correlation between activity early in the season or what the season will be like as a whole," Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay said.

Feltgen added, "It's not like June 1 comes and Mother Nature flips the switch."

NOAA predicts nine to 15 named storms in near-normal hurricane season 05/24/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 9:48pm]
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