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Foreboding signs forming in the tropics

June 27, 2010

From Chron

Scientists have tracked ocean temperatures in the hurricane-prone waters of the Atlantic since the end of World War II, but never have they seen a run-up to hurricane season as sobering as this one.

The tropics are even warmer than the toasty waters that spurred the 2005 hurricane season into such dizzying activity, with 28 named storms including Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Seasonal forecasters — a cautious lot, as the science of predicting storms remains an imperfect art — are nevertheless wary as the hurricane season begins Tuesday.

“The coming season looks very active based upon the latest data we’ve seen,” said Phil Klotzbach, who along with Colorado State University scientist Bill Gray publishes a widely regarded seasonal forecast. “The tropics are super warm right now.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean a repeat of the hyperactive 2005 season. There remain many unknowns, such as the level of wind shear in August, September and October.

The latest Colorado State forecast predicts 15 named storms this year, about 50 percent more than an average year, and eight hurricanes. That’s consistent with the forecasts issued by numerous private and academic groups.

However, on Thursday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that manages the National Hurricane Center, upped the ante by predicting 14 to 23 named storms and eight to 14 hurricanes this season.

“The main uncertainty in this outlook is how much above normal the season will be,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.

Warm seas a major factor

The midpoint of NOAA’s prediction is 18.5 storms, a far higher number than it has ever forecast in its decade of publishing predictions.

Several climatic factors have caused forecasters concern, but warm seas are the primary driver of their predictions. Warm water fuels hurricanes.

In April the average temperature in the tropical North Atlantic was 1.38 Celsius degrees above average, or about 2.5 Fahrenheit degrees, by far the largest anomaly ever recorded.

That is significant, said Fred Schmude, a forecaster with the Houston-based private weather company ImpactWeather, because scientists have tracked these waters for 62 years.

In those 744 months, the recorded value has exceeded the long-term average by 1 or more Celsius degrees just five times. Three of those five times have occurred in February, March and April of this year.

“Not only are we breaking records, but we are shattering them,” Schmude said.

From Chron

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