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Hurricane Forecast: "Very Active" Season, Five Major Storms Expected

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
May 31, 2006
 
Forecasters at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins say the
2006 hurricane season will be "very active," producing five major storms
between June 1 and November 30.

But the experts doubt that this summer's will be as spectacularly destructive as last year's.

Meteorologists William Gray and Phil Klotzbach at CSU released their forecast this morning.

They expect 17 named tropical storms to form, nine of which are expected to develop into hurricanes. Of those nine, five will grow into at least Category 3, or major, hurricanes.

(Learn more about the hurricane intensity scale.)

The CSU forecasters add that there's an 82 percent probability that one major hurricane will make landfall somewhere on the U.S. coast. That contrasts with an average likelihood of 52 percent.

The scientists also say that Florida and the East Coast are the most likely places to be hit by a hurricane, judging by the upper-level winds that steer the storms.

In a prepared statement, Klotzbach said the Atlantic Ocean "remains anomalously warm." Hurricanes draw their power from warm ocean water.

The scientists also note that the weather condition known as El Niño is not present this season.

El Niño creates upper-level winds and other conditions that make it difficult for hurricanes to develop.

(See an interactive feature on what causes hurricanes.)

"When the tropical Atlantic is warm and neutral conditions are present, Atlantic Basin hurricane activity is usually enhanced," Klotzbach said.

Hurricane Predictions

Other forecasts, including that of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also predict an above-average hurricane season.

The NOAA forecast, released earlier this month, predicts four to six major hurricanes forming from 13 to 16 named tropical storms.

An average hurricane season has about ten tropical storms, six hurricanes, and two major hurricanes.

During the unprecedented 2005 season—the most active on record—28 named storms formed, spawning 15 hurricanes. Seven major hurricanes formed.

If the 2006 hurricane season follows predictions, it will continue a trend of stormy summers that started in 1995.

Meteorologists think hurricane seasons follow cycles of alternating active and less active seasons. The cycles can last as long as 40 years and are thought to be caused by fluctuations in the surface temperatures of oceans.

"If the atmosphere and the ocean behave as they have in the past, we should have a very active season, but that doesn't necessarily translate into storms that produce as much destruction as last year," Gray said.

If the 2006 hurricane season is active, it will doubtless continue to fuel the debate among some meteorologists about whether global warming is affecting hurricanes.

Some researchers say the Earth's temperature is increasing, which is causing more intense hurricanes to form.

But Gray, who has been making long-range forecasts for more than 20 years, does not think this is having any measurable effect on hurricane formation.

"Nature is causing these things," Gray said. "It's not human-induced global warming."

Prediction Caution

As for where the storms might make landfall, Stu Ostro, a meteorologist with The Weather Channel, said he's cautious about predicting that one region is more or less likely to be hit by a hurricane.

"In May it's impossible to know exactly who is going to get what during the upcoming season," Ostro said.

Steve Rinard is a U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Rita last year.

He also takes the preseason forecasts with a dash of skepticism.

"I don't really dwell on those numbers," Rinard said.

"The big picture should be that it can reasonably be said that there are cyclical periods of hurricane activity, and now we seem to be in the middle of a cycle of busy hurricane seasons.

"Whether it's 15 or 18 or 20 [hurricanes], we know it's probably going to be above average. Where they're all going to strike, nobody knows."

Hurricane History

The prediction of an active 2006 season is not good news for storm-battered residents on the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Florida was struck by four hurricanes in 2004, and the 2005 season brought cataclysmic destruction to the Gulf Coast from three major hurricanes—Dennis in July, Katrina in August, and Rita in September.

Hurricane Dennis made landfall in Florida. Hurricane Katrina, which came ashore in Louisiana, killed more than 1,500 people and virtually destroyed New Orleans.

(See "Hurricane Katrina: Complete Coverage.")

Louisiana was hit again when Hurricane Rita made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border.

(See "Hurricane Rita: Complete Coverage.")

And in October Hurricane Wilma roared out of the Caribbean Sea and became the most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin.

(See related story and photo gallery: "Bahamas Rocked by 'Tsunami' From Hurricane Wilma.")

Damage totals for the 2005 season are still being compiled, but Hurricane Katrina alone may have caused as much as 80 billion U.S. dollars in damage.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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