The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today called for another above average hurricane season in the Atlantic, making it the fifth in a row threatening to break previous records.
Forecasters said they expect between 13 and 19 named storms, six to 10 hurricanes and between three and six major hurricanes, where winds could top 111 miles per hour. They put the odds of an above average season at 60 percent. A normal season produces just 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major storms.
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The forecast for a busy season, also predicted earlier this year by meteorologists at Colorado State University, is being driven by unusually warm surface waters in the tropical Atlantic and the Caribbean, forecasters said. A busy monsoon season off the African coast, where many storms are ignited, along with weaker tradewinds will also likely conspire to stir up more fierce storms.
Forecasters also don’t expect an El Niño weather pattern — which can produce hurricane-shredding upper atmospheric winds — to form in time to tamp down conditions. Pacific water temperatures, which drive El Niños and change wind patterns over the Atlantic, are currently neutral, said Gerry Bell, NOAA's lead seasonal forecaster.
"Needless to say, the active hurricane era that began in 1995 continues," he said.
Influences from climate change, which are pushing sea level rise and warming oceans, were not part of the forecast, he said. Earlier this week, NOAA published a new study concluding that the warming planet is generating more intense storms globally. But Bell said he believes decades-long patterns in the Atlantic, along with the El Niños and La Niñas, are behind a string of monster storms that include Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017, Michael in 2018, and Dorian last year.
"There may not be any global warming signal really to be seen in the Atlantic yet because these other factors are so huge," Bell said.
As the U.S. continues to battle the spread of COVID-19, emergency managers say they'll incorporate social distancing measures in preparation and evacutaion plans. More shelters may need to be opened, but staying with family or friends should always be the first choice, said Carlos Castillo, acting deputy director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"You have to keep in mind they're meant to keep you safe, but not necessarily comfortable," he said.
Increased testing for the coronavirus in the aftermath of a storm, which could worsen the spread of the disease, will be determined by local officials, he said.
The season that officially starts June 1 got off to an early start last week when a system drifting off the coast of Florida intensified to a tropical depression off Central Florida, before becoming Tropical Storm Arthur — the first named system of the Atlantic season. Winds topped out at about 60 mph off the coast of North Carolina earlier in the week before the system moved offshore.
NOAA has looked at changing the start date of the season, but Bell said there's still questions over whether hurricanes are actually forming sooner or just being better identified with improved technology. Over the last 20 years, about two weather events have occurred each year before the traditional start of the season, he said.
"It's not necessarily a climate signal that we're seeing with these May storms. It may just be that they weren't recorded before for various reasons," he said. "So the Hurricane Center is weighing the possible advantages and disadvantages that these start dates."
Steamy ocean temperatures this spring began foreshadowing a busy season. While onshore temperatures in South Florida set new records, University of Miami oceanographer Nick Shay warned currents carrying warm waters across the Atlantic would likely fuel more storms. Shay compared ocean temperatures in 2019 and 2020 in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and found 2020 running hotter. Warmer water also ran deeper.
Forecasting efforts will get a boost this year from six additional satellites scheduled to begin providing data. The shutdown slowed flights for commercial airlines, which provide some weather data, said Assistant Secretary of Commerce Neil Jacobs. But that only decreased forecast confidence by a percentage or two, he said.
NOAA and the U.S. Navy will also be sending out gliders to collect data from regions where hurricanes have historically intensified. That can help better forecast rapidly intensifying storms, like 2018's Hurricane Michael, which remain the most challenging storms to predict.