National Weather Service predicts strong hurricane season

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010

The National Weather Service said Thursday that it still expects a strong hurricane season, even though it reduced the number of possible Atlantic storms anticipated this year.

Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the agency's Climate Prediction Center, said all the factors are coming together for a stormy season, even as he reduced the expected number of named storms this year from 23 to 20.

He now predicts that as many as 12 of those storms will become hurricanes, down from the 14 that were forecast in May, in part because of a relatively quiet early hurricane season.

But Bell, speaking on a conference call, also said that multiple factors could result in an active season. The update coincides with peak hurricane season, which is August through October.

Bell said Atlantic Ocean temperatures remain higher than normal, which helps spawn hurricanes. He said the La NiƱa phenomenon, a cooling of Pacific Ocean water that eases the formation of Atlantic hurricanes, is building rapidly. And he said it is still an era of active hurricane seasons.

In May, Bell and other experts predicted as many as seven major hurricanes (storms with winds of 111 mph or higher). On Thursday, he said that outside number was lowered to six. But he added that the season doesn't usually get going until mid-August and that "everything is in place" for this year to be very active.

"The key message," he said, "is that significant activity is still predicted."

There were only three hurricanes last year. The 2005 season was the busiest on record, with 28 named storms, including Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. The season started June 1 and will end Nov. 30.

Only one Atlantic hurricane has occurred this year -- Alex, which struck eastern Mexico in late June. The first tropical storm, Bonnie, hit Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in July.

The remnants of Tropical Storm Colin, which formed Tuesday and is now a low-pressure area 475 miles south of Bermuda, appeared more organized Thursday.

The National Hurricane Center reported that the storm had a better defined circulation, and was probably generating tropical storm-force winds. Tropical storm winds range from 39 mph to 73 mph.

The storm, headed northwest at 20 mph, was likely to become a tropical storm again by Friday, the center said. Meanwhile, NASA on Thursday announced a new hurricane research effort in which it will, for the first time, send a high-tech unmanned aerial vehicle to investigate the birth and growth of hurricanes.

The agency said it plans to use the long-range Global Hawk, which was developed for military reconnaissance. The aircraft, the size of an airliner, will fly to the Atlantic or the gulf from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, north of Los Angeles.

After its cross-country flight, the craft can linger over a storm, at 60,000 feet, for about 12 hours, officials said. It will be armed with cameras, special radar and other sensors that can study long periods in the life of a storm, NASA said.

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