Feds forecast ‘near-normal’ hurricane season

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Prediction calls for between 12 and 17 named storms, with 1 to 4 reaching major hurricane status

With Atlantic hurricane season set to officially begin in a week, federal forecasters predicted Thursday that the basin would produce a “near-normal” number of storms this year. But with exceptionally warm ocean temperatures and the onset of El Niño combining to create an unusual brew over the Atlantic Ocean, the scientists cautioned that their forecast carries considerable uncertainty.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) forecast calls for between 12 and 17 named storms. Of those, 5 to 9 storms are expected to develop into hurricanes, with 1 to 4 reaching major hurricane status with sustained winds of 111 mph or greater. The agency’s forecast is similar to one released last month by researchers at Colorado State University, which predicted this season would see 13 named storms, with two growing into major hurricanes.

Over the last three decades, an “average” season in the Atlantic basin has whipped up 14.4 named storms, with 7.2 becoming hurricanes.

While NOAA put the likelihood of a near-normal season at 40%, the odds of an above- or below-average season were not far behind, with both outcomes given a 30% chance.

The murky forecast is due to a few countervailing factors.

One is the strong expectation that El Niño conditions will develop in the Pacific Ocean this summer. NOAA’s latest forecast puts the odds of an El Niño beginning in the next couple of months and continuing through winter at above 90%.

El Niño is characterized by warmer-than-normal temperatures in the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean. But the phenomenon also tends to send strong westerlies blowing across the Caribbean and the Atlantic, which can tear apart tropical storms and hurricanes as they try to form.

Matthew Rosencrans, the lead hurricane season forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said Thursday that those winds typically impact the strength of storms more than the total number that form.

At the same time, NOAA experts said other factors are conducive to hurricane development.

As greenhouse gas emissions from human activity have warmed the planet, the world’s oceans have absorbed the overwhelming majority of that excess heat.

Warm waters are the primary fuel source for hurricanes and right now, temperatures in the eastern and subtropical Atlantic are well above normal, agency experts said. Rosencrans said he does not expect the abnormally hot water temperatures in the Atlantic to dissipate any time soon.

“Once you move into summer season and you establish strong high pressures over the Atlantic Ocean, you’re not going to disrupt those tropical temperatures much,” he said.

NOAA experts also warned the country to prepare now for the upcoming season because the planet is now in a new era of more destructive storms. In most cases, climate change is to blame.

Global sea levels have risen, allowing storm surge to reach farther inland. And warmer air temperatures mean storms can hold more water, leading to increased rainfall rates that raise the risk of damaging floods.

“We can’t continuously focus our efforts on what happened to us in the past, because the threats and the risks we experience today are different than 10 years ago, and they’re going to be different than what we see 10 years from now,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell.

Georgia hasn’t had a major hurricane make landfall on its coast since the late 1800s, but several storms have hit the state hard after striking first elsewhere. In 2018, Hurricane Michael first came ashore on the Florida Panhandle, before churning north through Georgia, causing billions of dollars in property damage and crop losses.

In 2022, Georgia was fortunate to dodge a direct hit from Hurricane Ian after the massive storm raked across the Florida peninsula. Ian was a high-end Category 4 storm when it made landfall in southwestern Florida, packing winds of 150 mph. The storm was responsible for some 150 deaths and caused approximately $112 billion in damage, making it the costliest storm in Florida’s history and the third-costliest to ever strike the U.S.

Hurricane season officially begins June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

Note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/

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