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NOAA expects active hurricane season

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By Mitch Traphagen
mitch@observernews.net

UPDATE: NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has released their hurricane season outlook with 14 to 23 named storms including 8 to 14 hurricanes, of which three to seven are forecasted to be major hurricanes.  “If this outlook holds true, this season could be one of the more active on record,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “The greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall. In short, we urge everyone to be prepared.”

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The 2010 hurricane season begins on Tuesday, June 1. Above, palm trees feeling the brunt of Hurricane Frances in 2004.
Mitch Traphagen Photo

RUSKIN - For many residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast, hurricane season has become a distant nightmare. The last tropical system to strike this coast was Tropical Storm Fay in 2008. The last system to brush the Tampa Bay area was Tropical Depression Barry in 2007, followed by a weakening tropical wave named Olga in December of that year. No storms directly impacted the Bay area in 2006.

The past four years of relative quiet have given the state a much needed breather from the chaos that culminated in 2005 — a record-setting year of 27 named storms, including Katrina. On Tuesday, June 1, the 2010 season begins. Initial forecasts indicate that hurricane experts believe this year will be above average; but, of course, there is no way to know that with certainty. What is certain is that it just takes one hurricane to ruin your day (and possibly your home).

William Gray and Philip Klotzbach of Colorado State University are among the world’s best known hurricane forecasters. Each year they release generalized, long-range prognoses for the coming hurricane season. They revise and update those forecasts on specific dates throughout the year. While some, with the benefit of perfect hindsight, question their results; few dispute their methods which relies on analysis of complex long-range climatology, both oceanic and atmospheric, and the history of storms.

This year, as of their last forecast on April 7, Gray and Klotzbach are forecasting 15 named storms. The average is approximately 10 storms. They forecast that the probability of at least one major hurricane making landfall on the Florida peninsula is 45 percent. The average for the last 50 years is a 31 percent chance of landfall. According to the forecast, the entire U.S. coastline has a 69 percent chance of a landfalling major hurricane this year.

Gray and Klotzbach go to lengths to point out that their forecasts are intended to “satisfy the curiosity of the general public and to bring attention to the hurricane problem.” They also state that “The probability of landfall for any one location along the coast is very low and reflects the fact that, in any one season, most U.S. Coastal areas will not feel the effects of a hurricane no matter how active the individual season is.”

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Storm surge from Hurricane Frances in 2004 covered the docks in South Hillsborough marinas. Above, a sailboat succumbed to the storm. Mitch Traphagen photo

Joe Bastardi, chief long-range meteorologist and hurricane forecaster for Accuweather.com generally agrees with Gray and Klotzbach, but is somewhat more pointed in his delivery. In a release from Accuweather, Bastardi said, “This year has the chance to be an extreme season.” According to Accuweather, Bastardi is forecasting seven landfalling storms of which five will be hurricanes and two or three major hurricanes.

NOAA, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will release their official 2010 hurricane season outlook on May 27 during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Each hurricane season is different and there are enormous quantities of variables that come into play with tropical weather systems. Weather experts credit a strong El Niño in the Pacific Ocean with moderating the Atlantic hurricane season last year. Also, strong wind sheer across the Gulf of Mexico helped to keep storms from forming in this area. Currently, the El Niño, an effect in which the waters of the Pacific Ocean warm abnormally, is weakening. Meanwhile, sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are rising, providing the necessary ingredients for strong tropical systems.

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A satellite image of Hurricane Ike in 2008.

For residents in the Tampa Bay area, wind is only a part of the danger. Storm surge is generally considered the larger threat to life and property. The sloping shelf off the coast into the Gulf of Mexico creates the potential for an enormous surge. New road signs around South Hillsborough dramatically illustrate the possible height of a surge should a major hurricane make landfall. In such a scenario, the destruction would be staggering with most buildings west of Highway 41 submerged. A hurricane making landfall at or just north of the Bay area at high tide would be the ultimate nightmare for South Hillsborough. Once the surge began from such a storm, escape would be nearly impossible.
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An unknown factor for the 2010 season is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still ongoing in the Gulf. In seafaring legends, ship captains in times past would release oil during storms to calm the seas behind their ships. In theory, the process may have worked on such a micro scale, which has led some to believe that the oil spill could disrupt hurricanes entering the Gulf. Unfortunately, few experts believe that would be the case. Despite the enormous size of the current oil spill, a large hurricane would not likely be impacted since much of the oil is a sheen on the surface. On the other hand, with millions of gallons of oil in the water, a Gulf hurricane has the potential to magnify the disaster by driving more oil inland before it has the time to naturally decompose.

With hurricane season on the horizon, now is the time to begin preparations, assuming you haven’t already. The Florida Division of Emergency Management has created a web site where you can input information about your home, family, and pets to create a printable, personalized family disaster plan. The agency also allows you to create a plan for your business. Included is an evacuation map and emergency contact information for your location. Visit www.floridadisaster.org.

On Monday, more than a week before the official start of hurricane season, the National Hurricane Center was tracking a system in the Atlantic well east of Florida. The agency stated that there is a medium chance for some form of storm development. While it poses no threat to the Tampa Bay area, it does serve as a tangible reminder that storm season has already begun.

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