Musings: NOAA Hedges About Storm Season Ahead; Others Agree

Musings: NOAA Hedges About Storm Season Ahead; Others Agree

A few days prior to the official start of the 2012 hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its first forecast for storm activity. The forecast was introduced about the same time tropical storm Beryl, the second named storm of the season, was being watched as it formed off the coasts of northern Florida and Georgia. The storm, which grew just short of becoming a hurricane, came ashore north of Fort Lauderdale, Florida during the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend. So prior to the June 1st start of the hurricane season, the country has already experienced two tropical storms with one making landfall.

NOAA's 2012 forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of between nine and 15 named tropical storms (with top winds of 39 miles per hour or higher), between four and eight hurricanes (top winds of 74 mph or more) with one to three becoming major hurricanes (top winds of 111 mph or greater). The government's Climate Prediction Center characterizes the forecast as "a less active season compared to recent years." In the headline for the NOAA press release announcing the forecast, the season is characterized as "a near-normal 2012 Atlantic hurricane season." In light of two storms before the start of the season, we wonder whether NOAA will be going back to the drawing board for a new forecast anytime soon.

The NOAA forecast is based on current climatic conditions along with the possibility that two climatic forces that could limit the formation of storms might strengthen as the storm season progresses. The Atlantic basin is experiencing a continuation of the overall conditions associated with the high-activity era that began in 1995. In addition, sea surface temperatures across most of the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea are near-average, which is favorable for storm formation and strengthening. The two forces emerging that could limit the development of storms and their strengthening are strong wind shear and cooler sea surface temperatures in the far eastern Atlantic Ocean. Another factor that could impede storm development would be the development of El Niño in the Pacific Ocean that cools the Atlantic basin sea temperatures and increases shear winds. NOAA acknowledges that an El Niño could shift its forecasts to the lower end of its ranges.

The NOAA forecast is consistent with the June 1st forecast by Phil Klotzbach and William Gray of the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University (CSU). Their revised forecast for the season calls for 13 named storms, five hurricanes and two major hurricanes. Their increased forecast reflects their expectation El Nino may not develop this summer. CSU does produce an estimate for the potential for tropical storm landfalls. The projections for this season call for a 48 percent chance of landfall somewhere along the U.S. coastline (historical chance is 52 percent). There is a 28 percent (31 percent historical) chance of landfall along the East Coast including the Florida peninsula, while a storm coming ashore along the Gulf Coast has a 28 percent chance (30 percent historical) of happening. An early start to the tropical storm season may be significant, but quite likely it will mean very little by the end of the year.


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