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EL NINO KEEPS HURRICANES AT BAY

Experts expect the calm to continue, but don't let down your guard.

We can thank El Nino for what has been a dud of a hurricane season so far.

As forecasters predicted, the weather phenomenon responsible for everything from monsoons in India to ice storms in Canada has blessed our state with a quiet hurricane season.

"What we're seeing is a very difficult environment for hurricanes to form or stay organized," said Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "That's what El Nino does."

Warmer surface water in the eastern Pacific Ocean, a key El Nino indicator, has generated strong wind shear in the upper atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean.

That shear, along with steering currents pushing north, is responsible for either turning or breaking up most of the season's six named Atlantic storms.

With 2-1/2 months left in this year's hurricane season, we have no reason to think the Atlantic wind shear will die any time soon. In fact, meteorologists expect the weak to moderate El Nino to last through the winter.

"We've been in the same pattern since June, so forecasting it to continue is probably a good bet," said Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground (wunderground.com). "I don't see any major changes coming. Storms are going to be recurving, and it'll definitely be a below-active season."

But below active doesn't mean zero.

Hurricane forecasters always caution the public to be prepared for hurricanes between June and November, no matter what the forecast. Masters thinks at least one Atlantic hurricane will make landfall and "cause problems" somewhere in the eastern United States this year.

And, as Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay points out, Florida historically has been hit more in October than any other month.

Typically, that's when more storms begin forming in the warm western Caribbean Sea. Those storms historically tend to gravitate toward the Keys and Miami.

Clay, like the other forecasters, thinks the El Nino will continue to keep things slow and quiet.

But it's no guarantee.

The 2004 hurricane season was an El Nino year.

It brought Ivan, Frances, Jeanne and Charley to Florida, and more than 3,000 people worldwide died.

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

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