This year's hurricane season is likely to be stormier than average, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted last week. NOAA meteorologists have predicted 12 to 15 tropical storms, with six to eight becoming hurricanes. Among those, two to four might become major hurricanes with winds of 110 mph or greater, according to the forecast.
If the prediction is accurate, it means that this hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30, continues a string of stormy years. The quarter-century before 1995 was relatively quiet. Staff writer David A. Fahrenthold spoke with NOAA meteorologist Gerry Bell, the head of the hurricane forecast team in Camp Springs.
Q What climate signals do you look for in making hurricane predictions?
A Several crucial things that the climate controls are the flow [of air] coming off of the west coast of Africa. . . . That provides energy for disturbances coming off the west coast of Africa, and those are the systems that ultimately become major hurricanes. Another [sign is] below-normal air pressure. Hurricanes are low-pressure. A third critical factor is the change in winds as you go up through the atmosphere. . . . Hurricanes require a uniform wind field with height. If the winds change a lot with height, [that occurrence] blows a tropical disturbance apart [and] can literally destroy a system in 24 hours.
How do these hurricanes form?
It's a feedback process, where initially the thing is a low-pressure center. Then as the systems move out over the Atlantic, as they strengthen . . . you get more thunderstorm activity that acts to further lower the air pressure, which acts to further increase the thunderstorm activity.
How vulnerable is the Washington region to hurricanes, compared with other spots on the Atlantic coast?
Most of the hurricanes that form during the peak of this [season], they form over the tropical Atlantic. They initially head west, [then] typically head northward skirting the Caribbean Islands, come up toward Florida. Then they re-curve out to sea. The way D.C. is situated, relatively few systems hit the D.C. area, or north of the Carolinas. [But] sometimes, that curving out doesn't occur until after they have made landfall. Then we get hit.
Should residents be doing anything to prepare themselves?
Things like making sure you have proper drainage away from your house. If you have problems with your roofing . . . if you can get it fixed, do it. People in more hurricane-prone areas [could] keep their plywood that they used last summer to plywood up their windows. They are just a lot of common-sense things, but they're things that we don't tend to think about in the D.C. area because we don't have a lot of tropical storm systems. But it only takes one.