Hurricane warnings II

It wasn't surprising that the government weighed in with an outlook calling for a potentially destructive hurricane season, given that private forecasters have been issuing similar dire predictions.

What is most intriguing about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's outlook is the upper range of possibilities.

NOAA says that it's likely that somewhere between 14 and 23 storms will earn a name by packing winds of at least 39 m.p.h. Of those, eight to 14 would become hurricanes, with winds of 74 m.p.h. or better, and three to seven would reach major status, with winds of at least 111 m.p.h.

In other words, expect a season that will be way over-active, at best, or historic, at worst. On average, by NOAA's count, 11 named storms form in any given year, with six of those becoming hurricanes, and three majors.

The private and government forecasters agree that conditions in both the tropical Pacific and Atlantic Basin, which includes the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, look favorable for an explosive season.

The El Nino warming in the Pacific that had such a dampening effect on last year's season is over, and the temperatures in the hurricane-incubator of the tropical Atlantic have never been warmer.

Gerry Bell, who is the chief hurricane forecaster for the Climate Prediction Center, says the warm Atlantic has a lot to do with our bizarre winter.

Because of persistent patterns in the North Atlantic, the trade winds that blow from the west coast of Europe toward the tropics just about died.

That allowed the tropical waters to warm almost unbelievably. Right now surface temperatures are several degrees above normal, unprecedented in a period of record that dates to the 19th Century.

Bell says that if those waters retain that warmth, and if the tropical Pacific continues to cool, look out! The Pacific is critical because it is a source of west-to-east winds that can shear off burgeoning storms in the Atlantic Basin.

During El Nino, those winds are powerful, as they were last year. When the Pacific waters cool to below normal, the condition known as La Nina, the shear becomes negligible.

If La Nina comes on, and the Atlantic warmth persists, Bell says the worst may well happen.

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