Scientists up hurricane projections ever so slightly

Researchers at Colorado State University now predict a near average season: 14 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. That's up from a slightly below-average spring forecast.
Published June 4

The likelihood of a stronger hurricane season appears to be growing.

Scientists from Colorado State University are now predicting a season with near average activity, up from a slightly lower spring forecast.

The new seasonal outlook, published Tuesday, now predicts 14 named storms, of which six are hurricanes. Forecasters warn that two of those hurricanes could be major hurricanes, which means Category 3, 4 or 5 with wind speeds at least 111 mph.

That includes Subtropical Storm Andrea, a short-lived cyclone that formed in mid May and didn't impact any land.

Officially, hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. An average season yields 12.1 named storms, 6.4 hurricanes and 2.7 major hurricanes.

The June 4 update is marginally higher than the one the Colorado State team released in early April. That forecast, one of the first seasonal outlooks published each year, predicted 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

As is often the case, the seasonal forecast is the result of weighing competing factors, said Colorado State hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. On the one hand, Atlantic Ocean temperatures have crept up, making it more conducive to hurricane development, as hurricanes feed off warm water. Yet Klotzbach predicts a weak El Nino will persist into the season, tamping down hurricanes.

El Nino is an area of warm water in the tropical Pacific Ocean. It makes for a more active season on that side of the globe; on this side, it sends strong winds across the tropical Atlantic. Those winds can sheer storms apart before they develop into dangerous cyclones, discouraging hurricane activity.

The slight increase in projected tropical activity means there's a greater likelihood Florida and the entire Atlantic coastline will be struck by a storm. The probability of a major hurricane making landfall anywhere along the continental U.S. is 54 percent, university scientists predict. During the last century, the Atlantic coastline was struck in 52 seasons.

Florida, jutting out from the North American continent like Pinocchio's nose into some of the Atlantic Ocean's warmest water, managed to dodge a hurricane landfall for 11 years. There was fear during that time that Floridians — both new residents with little hurricane experience and veterans who got complacent — wouldn't be prepared for a direct hit. Klotzbach called it "hurricane amnesia."

Not so anymore. The unprecedented streak came to an end in 2016 when Category 1 Hermine struck the Big Bend area. The following year, record-setting behemoth Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Keys as a Category 4. Last year, Category 5 Michael tore through the Panhandle as one of the strongest storms to make landfall anywhere in the country in recorded history.

Many of those affected by Hurricane Michael remain in recovery, even as this year's season has begun.

The updated forecast still sits squarely within the ranges predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the government agency under which Miami's National Hurricane Center sits. Government forecasters predict there will be nine to 15 named storms, four to eight hurricanes and two to four major hurricanes.

Administration scientists and Klotzbach disagree about whether the Atlantic remains rooted in an active era, or if it is transitioning to a quieter period. The eras, thought to be about 25 to 40 years in length, are tied to long-term trends in Atlantic water temperatures.

Klotzbach thinks the Atlantic is entering into a lesser active period. He points to cool water temperatures in the far north Atlantic, near Greenland. He said that's an indication of what the entire ocean may do in years to come.

However, Gerry Bell, a hurricane forecaster for the administration's Climate Prediction Center, said recently there's no indication the Atlantic's hurricane engine is slowing down.

Without historical perspective, it's hard to tell who's right. There haven't been several years of consistently high or low activity to serve as a clear indicator.

"The last few years are muddled in that regard," Klotzbach said.

Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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