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Fierce forecast: Feds predict up to 10 Atlantic hurricanes in 2011

May 19, 2011


Federal forecasters Thursday called for an “above-normal” hurricane season this year. They predict anywhere from 12-18 named storms to form in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Earl spins in the Atlantic Ocean last September. Although it didn't make landfall, Earl came the closest to hitting the USA of any 2010 hurricane.Hurricane Earl spins in the Atlantic Ocean last September. Although it didn’t make landfall, Earl came the closest to hitting the USA of any 2010 hurricane.

Of those named storms, six to 10 should become hurricanes, including three to six “major” hurricanes, with wind speeds above 111 mph.

Tropical storms are given a name when wind speeds reach 39 mph. They are upgraded to hurricane status when their sustained winds reach 74 mph. An average Atlantic hurricane season sees 11 named storms, including six hurricanes; two become major hurricanes.

Forecasters do not predict the number of storms that will make landfall.

Climate factors in this outlook include unusually warm Atlantic Ocean water and temperatures two degrees above average, reports Gerry Bell, lead seasonal forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center. Additionally, the impacts of the La Nina climate pattern, such as reduced wind shear, are expected to continue into the hurricane season.

“In addition to multiple climate factors, seasonal climate models also indicate an above-normal season is likely, and even suggest we could see activity comparable to some of the active seasons since 1995,” Bell said.

Since 1995, Bell says the Atlantic is in an era of increased hurricane activity. There are consistently favorable ocean and atmospheric conditions for storm formation.

Thursday’s NOAA forecast is similar to earlier predictions by researchers at Colorado State University and the AccuWeather commercial weather service. The Colorado State team, led by William Gray and Phil Klotzbach, forecasts that 16 named storms will form in the Atlantic basin; it says there is a 72% chance of a major hurricane striking land.

AccuWeather predicts that 15 named storms will form, of which eight should be hurricanes.

The season officially runs June 1 through Nov. 30. However, most hurricanes tend to form from August through October, according to National Hurricane Center records.

The first storm of this year in the Atlantic, Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico will be Arlene, followed by Bret, Cindy, Don and Emily.

Forecasters also released their prediction for the Eastern Pacific basin, where nine to 15 named storms are expected, which would be a below-normal season. An average Eastern Pacific hurricane season produces 15 to 16 named storms.

Eastern Pacific storms and hurricanes primarily stay out to sea and seldom affect the USA, although some storms do hit the west coast of Mexico.

NOAA forecasts for named tropical storms and hurricanes have been accurate in six out of the past 11 years, according to a USA TODAY analysis. NOAA’s prediction was too low in four years and too high in just one year: 2006. Nine of the 11 years saw above-average activity for tropical storms and hurricanes.

The same type of storm is known as a typhoon in the western Pacific Ocean or cyclone in the Indian Ocean.

The forecast was announced Thursday morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center at a press conference at the NOAA Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md.

With no major U.S. hurricane landfalls since the catastrophic 2005 season (Hurricane Ike hit Texas as a strong Category 2 storm in 2008), officials worry about complacency.

In a 2010 poll of coastal residents taken by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, almost half the respondents had no hurricane survival kit and 74% had taken no steps to make their homes structurally stronger since the last hurricane season.

“The United States was fortunate last year. Winds steered most of the season’s tropical storms and all hurricanes away from our coastlines,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco at the Thursday press conference. “However we can’t count on luck to get us through this season. We need to be prepared, especially with this above-normal outlook.”

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