Hurricane update

The 2011 tropical-storm season is off to a brisk start, with Emily, the season's fifth named storm, due to have a close encounter with the Florida coast this weekend.

Usually, the fifth one doesn't show up until Aug. 31.

It is now all but certain that this will be an above-normal season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said today.

In a briefing, Gerry Bell, the chief long-range hurricane forecaster, said the tropical Atlantic remains quite warm and conditions are ripe for mischief.

The agency tweaked its earlier forecast numbers, saying it now expected 14 to 19 named storms, those with winds of at least 39 m.p.h., and 7 to 10 hurricanes, with winds of 74 m.p.h. or greater.

That's an upgrade from the May outlook, which called for 12 to 18 named storms, and 6 to 10 hurricanes. Average numbers are 11 and 6.

More significantly, NOAA said in May the probability of an above-normal season was 65 percent; now it's 85 percent.

NOAA is looking for 3 to 5 "major" hurricanes, with winds of 111 m.p.h. or greater; the average is 2.

Bell said the upgrades are based on the fact that Atlantic temperatures are about 1 degree Fahrenheit above normal. Hurricanes feed on heat energy.

While the ocean warmth is tied to a natural cycle, he said, the temperatures are the third warmest in the period of record, dating to 1954. 

Meanwhile there's a chance that surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific will cool off. When that happens, the west-to-east shearing winds that can tear apart storms in the Atlantic tend to weaken.