A respected forecasting project is calling for another round of strong hurricanes this year.

Last week, as it’s been done every year since 1984, the Tropical Meteorology Project (TMP) Colorado State University issued its predictions for the coming hurricane season. According to their research, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast may not be out of the woods yet.

“We are calling for a very active season this year with nearly twice the average activity,” said Philip Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State and co-author of the forecast. “People should be ready and be prepared if a hurricane does threaten their area. I’d hope people in Florida and the Gulf Coast are pretty well prepared after the last two seasons.”

The TMP forecast predicts 17 named storms, nine hurricanes and five “intense hurricanes”—defined as a storm that’s category three or stronger—during the Atlantic hurricane season, which lasts from June to November. Since 1950, the average forecast foretells about 10 named storms, about six hurricanes and about two strong hurricanes.

More worrisome than the increased number of storms is the above average likelihood that one of these storms will make landfall in the US. According to the report, there’s a 91% chance of a hurricane hitting somewhere along the coastline and an 81% chance of an intense hurricane making landfall.

The Project’s forecasts are being monitored closely by Federal Emergency Management Agency, a governmental department that hopes to avoid a failure of response like the one that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA is now armed with a “renewed sense of commitment,” new monitoring centers along the coast from Texas to North Carolina and advanced forecasts, like the TMPs.

“Absolutely we watch these studies,” a FEMA spokesperson said. “We have to start somewhere, and they’re very good. One thing we’re looking at this year is the possibility of a storm hitting Florida or the Gulf Coast. We look at this very closely.”

William Gray, the forecast’s other co-author, began researching statistical predictions for hurricane intensity in the late ‘70s. He found that certain measurable patterns in the global climate system, such as the intensity of the warming and cooling of Pacific waters during El Niño and the amount of rainfall in the Sahel region of Africa, corresponded with periods of powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic.

“Before that, nobody really had any idea,” said Klotzbach. “You didn’t know if it was going to be an active season or not. There was really no way to say.”

Though they acknowledge in the report that a warmer Atlantic provides more energy for intense storms, Klotzman and Gray are wary of drawing direct connections to global warming, despite a study that found a direct link between the two last year. The Atlantic goes through regular periods of greater and lesser activity, they say, and has been in a more intense period since around 1995, making it hard to determine what role climate change may be playing.

The cyclical nature of the hurricane season means that, even without any added help from warming, intense storms will probably continue to pound the coast for some time.

“If you assume the future behaves in a similar way to the past,” said Klotzman, “it is likely that we will have active seasons for the next 15 to 20 years.”

Originally published April 17, 2006


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