NHC Tracking Atlantic Tropical Depression Four

HOUSTON, (Dow Jones Newswires), Aug 13, 2007

A tropical depression in the eastern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of northwest Africa could develop into a tropical storm and possibly a hurricane in the next few days, say forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

Tropical Depression Four, which is causing thunderstorms and strong winds, is currently located southwest of the Cape Verde Islands and is expected to travel west, reaching the Windward Islands in the southern Caribbean in the next few days, the NHC predicted.

U.S. energy markets are eyeing the depression closely, amid concern that if it strengthened into a tropical storm or hurricane headed for the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, it could disrupt oil and natural gas production there.

The thunderstorms have become more organized and winds have intensified to 35 miles an hour with stronger gusts, said Lt. Dave Roberts, an NHC hurricane specialist.

"We're expecting a gradual intensification over the next day or so," Roberts said.

As the depression approaches the Windward Islands there's a chance it could develop into a hurricane, he predicted.

September natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange were up nearly 4% Monday, trading about 25 cents higher at $7.07 a million British thermal units. They reached a six-week high of $7.12 a million British thermal units on news of the tropical depression, as well as forecasts for continued hot weather in the U.S. Midwest and South.

September light, sweet crude oil on the Nymex was trading about $1.55 higher at $73.05 a barrel, on rising global equity markets that calmed fears about a global credit crunch that could cut oil demand. Oil prices were also pushed higher by concerns about the tropical depression, traders said.

The depression is the fourth this season.

The fourth named tropical storm of the season would be named Dean. The NHC generally classifies tropical storms as systems with sustained winds of 39 miles an hour. Tropical storms are upgraded to Category 1 hurricanes when sustained winds reach 74 miles an hour.

Separately, the NHC is watching an area of low pressure in the Atlantic over the Yucatan Peninsula, which the agency said is expected to enter the U.S. Gulf of Mexico over the next day or so and could develop into a storm.

"Anyone with interest in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico should monitor this system," Roberts said.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists last week predicted an 85% chance of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, up from 75% in its May outlook. The agency expects 13 to 16 named storms, with seven to nine becoming hurricanes, of which three to five could become major hurricanes.

Copyright (c) 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. The NHC plans to update its forecast at 5 p.m. Eastern.