The coming Atlantic hurricane season should produce a near-average 12 named storms before it ends in November, according to Phil Klotzbach, lead author of the pioneering Colorado State University forecast.
At least five of those storms will reach hurricane status, and two of them will become Category 3 or stronger systems on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. A disturbance gets a name when its cyclonic winds reach 39 mph, which is when it also is classified a tropical storm.
Klotzbach, lead author of the seasonal outlook developed by William Gray, said this year was a difficult one to predict.
“There is a lot of uncertainty with the April forecast,” he said. “There is a very high bust potential.”
Atlantic hurricanes are closely tracked because they can affect oil, natural gas and agricultural markets and production in addition to the toll they take on humans. On average, 12 storms form in the Atlantic from June 1 through November 30.
About 4.2 percent of the U.S. marketed natural gas production comes from the Gulf of Mexico, along with 17 percent of crude oil, according to the Energy Information Administration. The Gulf region also is home to more than 45 percent of petroleum refining capacity and 51 percent of natural gas processing.
Florida — the last U.S. state struck by a major hurricane, 2005’s Wilma — is the world’s second-largest orange-juice producer, behind Brazil, according to the Agriculture Department. More than 6.6 million homes with an estimated reconstruction cost of $1.5 trillion lie in vulnerable areas of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, said the Insurance Information Institute in New York. Hurricanes, also called cyclones and typhoons, depending on where they form, are the most powerful storms on Earth.
Last year, Colorado State called for 7 named storms, with 3 becoming hurricanes and 1 a major hurricane. The season actually produced 11 storms, 3 hurricanes and 2 major storms, one of which, Joaquin, sank the container ship El Faro with 33 people on board.
The university’s 2016 forecast is lower than those of many commercial meteorologists. MDA Weather Services calls for 16 named storms; WeatherBell Analytics’ Joe Bastardi said from 11 to 14 would form; Commodity Weather Group LLC is looking for 15; and AccuWeather Inc. predicts 14. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes its prediction in May.
Klotzbach said he’s forecasting an average number of storms because the Atlantic could end up being a battleground for forces that would enhance hurricane development and those that might keep the numbers down. This prediction doesn’t include Hurricane Alex, which formed in January.
The North Atlantic is currently cooler than normal, and that water may bleed southward to coastal Africa. Tropical systems need warm water to develop, so a cool pool at the place where so many get started could hold down the season’s overall numbers.
“Frankly, it is the only place on the globe that is cold,” Klotzbach said. “It is a detrimental sign for hurricanes.”
However, a fading El Nino in the Pacific could help conditions become more favorable for hurricanes in the Atlantic. El Ninos create more Atlantic wind shear that can tear a budding hurricane apart.
If the El Nino completely disappears by summer in the Northern Hemisphere, much of that shear won’t be there to rip the storms as they form.
The chances a hurricane will hit somewhere in the U.S. are 48 percent, he said, slightly below the 20th century average of 52 percent.
Klotzback said the lack of an El Nino isn’t an absolute guarantee there will be more storms. Going back to 1950, the years following strong El Ninos have produced everything from few storms to very active seasons.
“If you use that as your guideline, you get no useful information,” he said.
–With assistance from Christine Buurma, Joe Carroll and Marvin G. Perez.