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

This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It is forecast to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle as a Category 3 storm. [NOAA]
This satellite image shows Hurricane Michael on Oct. 9, 2018, as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. It is forecast to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle as a Category 3 storm. [NOAA]
Published April 5, 2019

From the Florida Panhandle to the Caribbean Sea, communities are still recovering from year after year of devastating hurricanes while researchers are already looking to what's next.

Early indicators point to a below-average Atlantic hurricane season, according to an annual report from Colorado State University. Researchers, however, warn those in coastal areas should remain prepared following consecutive years of catastrophically damaging hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

"As is the case with all hurricane seasons, coastal residents are reminded that it only takes one hurricane making landfall to make it an active season for them," researchers wrote.

The Colorado State University Department of Atmospheric Science Tropical Meteorology on Thursday released the report, which is traditionally one of the earliest predictors of the coming season.

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Researchers predict 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes for 2019. The average is 12.1 named storms, 6.4 hurricanes and 2.7 major hurricanes, which are storms with sustained winds of at least 111 mph.

The report also predicts 50 days of named storms, 16 hurricane days and four major hurricane days. The average numbers are 59.4, 24.2 and 6.2, respectively.

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Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State researcher and one of the report's lead authors, said cool waters in the Atlantic and an El Niño in the Pacific are setting the conditions for limited activity. Warm water in the Atlantic, he said, acts as fuel for building storms crossing the ocean. Currently, the tropical Atlantic is cooler than normal and the North Atlantic is "anomalously" cool, meaning approaching storms may not have the chance to strengthen as they enter the Caribbean and Gulf. Klotzbach added that cold Atlantic waters generally reflect warming trends around the globe.

"Temperatures in the far North Atlantic tend to go opposite of the rest of the globe," he said. "So when the far North Atlantic is cold, the rest of the globe actually tends to be warmer."

The main factor though, is the current El Niño pattern of warm Pacific waters and upper-level energy.

"The El Niño is the biggest factor in the prediction," Klotzbach said. "When you have an El Niño, it tends to have upper level winds that then tear apart hurricanes in the Atlantic."

According to the report, there's generally a 31 percent chance the Florida peninsula will get hit with a major hurricane, going back 100 years. This year that chance is around 28 percent. However, researchers press that just one hurricane can have monumental impact on a given area and their report is no way to predict landfall.

For about a decade, Klotzbach said, Florida and the gulf got lucky when it came to hurricane damage. But that luck has changed, particularly in the last few years as communities still reel from Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 and the Category 4 Michael in 2018, the most powerful storm recorded to hit the Panhandle.

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"The last couple of years Florida has obviously gotten smacked," he said. "(Michael was) the strongest hurricane anyone alive on the Panhandle has experienced."

People can tend to get lax with preparedness, Klotzbach said. However, with population growth and accumulated wealth along coastal areas, hurricanes are inflicting more damage than ever before by virtue of there being more things to damage, he added.

Regardless of predictions, he said, "follow the instructions of your local emergency management and stay prepared."

Hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

Colorado State will issue an update report in early June.

Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at Follow @danuscripts.

2019 hurricane names