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Federal agency predicts average Atlantic hurricane season

This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Panhandle as a Category 5 storm. [Photo courtesy of NOAA]
This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Panhandle as a Category 5 storm. [Photo courtesy of NOAA]
Published May 30

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season will be about average.

The environmental agency released its 2019 seasonal forecast Thursday, calling for nine to 15 named storms and four to eight hurricanes, of which scientists think two to four will be major hurricanes. Major hurricanes are Category 3 or higher, with sustained wind speeds at least 111 mph.

It also says there is a 40 percent chance of a near-normal season, a 30 percent chance of a below-average season and a 30 percent chance of an above-average season.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hurricane outlook: Remain vigilant despite expected below-average activity, forecasters warn

A normal hurricane season brings 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

Gerry Bell, lead hurricane forecaster for the administration's Climate Prediction Center, also said the Atlantic Ocean has shown no signs of cooling off, indicating it remains in the period of hyperactivity that began in 1995.

Bell said the average forecast for this season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, is the result of competing factors that he expects to cancel each other out: There's the El Niño, which suppresses hurricanes, and warm Atlantic waters and a strong west-African monsoon, both of which are favorable for hurricanes.

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El Niño is warmer-than-average water in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which has the tendency to up hurricane activity on that side of the globe. It's impact on Atlantic hurricane formation, though, is the opposite, because it creates wind shear over the tropical Atlantic Ocean — the area most hurricanes form. Those high-altitude winds tend to rip storms apart before they ramp up, tamping down hurricane activity.

Bell said there's a weak El Niño that he expects to persist into the season.

Yet hurricanes thrive off warm water. So warmer Atlantic waters means the ocean is conducive to hurricane development.

Just as a strong west-African monsoon, which are wind patterns along the west African coast, also enhances hurricane activity.

The government's forecast is slightly higher than that of Colorado State University, which is also known for forecasting hurricane seasons. The university's April outlook called for a slightly-below average season, with 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes. Colorado State's forecast does fall within the government's predicted ranges.

At a news conference in Washington D.C. to announce the forecast, Bell also talked about the Atlantic pattern that tends to bring 25 to 40 years of active Atlantic hurricane seasons, followed by 25 to 40 years of below-normal-activity seasons. There has been discussion among hurricane scientists that the Atlantic could be cooling off after a period of consistently strong hurricane seasons that began in 1995. He left little room for doubt that isn't true.

"We're not seeing any indication that we're getting out of this high activity period yet," he said. "As far as predicting when it will end, there's no way to know."

After enjoying an 11-year reprieve from hurricane landfalls, Florida has been a target three years in a row: by Category 1 Hermine in the Big Bend area in 2016, by Category 4 Irma when it hit the Keys in 2017 and last year by Category 5 Michael in the Panhandle.

Bell said last year's storm season, which in addition to Michael, brought Hurricane Florence to the Carolinas, shows how important it is to be prepared.

The two storms were totally different. Florence, which stalled once it made landfall, dropped record rain and caused devastating flooding. Michael, on the other hand, registered the fourth-strongest windspeed ever upon landfall and tore through everything in its path.

READ OUR HURRICANE MICHAEL SERIES

"Both of these different hurricanes really highlight the myriad types of impacts you can see with these hurricanes," Bell said. That means those who live in areas within striking distance of storms must remember: "I need to make sure my preparedness plans are in place for the ways myself, my family, my area could be impacted."

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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