Prediction: 12 named tropical storms, five named hurricanes and two major hurricanes

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  • Igor photographed from the International Space Station

    Igor photographed from the International Space Station

Predicting exactly where storms will make landfall in the US and the Caribbean including Bermuda would be extremely difficult, but there are some indications of areas where storms may brew and coasts that may be vulnerable based on weather patterns anticipated this summer.

“Home-grown” storms in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, near the US Coast, are a possibility this year.

“Fronts coming down during June and July could cause energy to break off and develop tropically,” Paul Pastelok, lead long-range forecaster, said.

“Another big storm is possible for the East Coast with heavy, flooding rain,” Mr Pastelok added. “With a ridge (of high pressure) over the Rockies and a trough (of low pressure) over the Great Lakes and Appalachians, the East Coast will be open for a hit (this summer). Of course, this depends on where the storms form.”

Although the overall forecast numbers for 2012 are lower than 2011, meteorologists warn that it only takes one major hit to the US to have a huge and devastating impact.

“People should take preliminary precautions and make preparations for hurricane season. Get a hurricane plan together and get hurricane supplies in order, such as materials to mitigate property damage. Make a family plan for evacuation, including what to bring,” he said.

The 1992 Atlantic Hurricane Season is an example of how overall numbers can lead to a false sense of security and one storm can break “hurricane amnesia” for places that have not had a direct hit in years.

The tropical season started slow and there were low numbers of named systems in 1992. During the entire season there was one subtropical storm, three tropical depressions, two tropical storms and four hurricanes.

The first tropical storm of the season was named on one of the latest dates ever recorded, on August 17. That storm was named Andrew and later strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane before slamming into Homestead, Florida.

Andrew was one of the most infamous hurricanes to strike Florida, and the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the US since Hurricane Camille in 1969. According to NOAA, Andrew caused $26 billion in damage and killed more than 60 people.

Meghan Evans, another top US meteorologist, said that based on numbers of expected storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes and not factoring in potential impact to land, 2012 is expected to be less active than last year.

There are a couple of factors that have led the Long-Range Forecasting Team to forecast lower numbers of named storms this year.

Compared to 2011, this Atlantic Hurricane Season will start out with a less-conducive environment for tropical storms to develop. The official start of the season in the Atlantic is today.

Strong high-level winds are in place over the western and central Caribbean, promoting increased wind shear. If these high-level winds do not abate, increased wind shear will inhibit tropical storm development early in the season.

Strong wind shear, which is the change of wind speed or direction with altitude, causes building clouds to be tilted, restricting vertical development. Unless a tropical system has a vertically oriented core, its ability to develop are diminished.

The surface pressure across the Atlantic is not as low as it was in 2011, when there was below-normal surface pressure across the Caribbean. The surface pressure is now near to above-normal in the same region.

When surface pressure is lower, it promotes tropical storm development.

Meanwhile two Colorado State University climatologists, who have independently been tracking and predicting the severity of hurricanes for nearly 30 years, have abandoned their long-range forecasting efforts.

Despite advances in supercomputers, hurricane-hunter aircraft, satellites, weather buoys and more, long-term prediction simply isn’t feasible today. But short-term forecasts get better every year.

“We have suspended issuing quantitative forecasts at this extended-range lead time, since they have not proved skillful over the last 20 years,” Philip J Klotzbach and William M Gray wrote in their annual report last December. The report was intended to predict the severity of the upcoming year’s Atlantic hurricane season.

Mr Klotzbach and Mr Gray will continue forecasting just not in December, months in advance of the hurricane season.

“From a computation perspective, there’s enough chaos in weather that I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to predict it months in advance,” Mr Klotzbach.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Colorado State and others traditionally issue hurricane predictions in late May just prior to the start of the season, and update them in early August, just prior to the historic peak. Twenty years ago, Mr Klotzbach decided to push the envelope, to see how early he could predict the season.

The results weren’t good.

In December 2010, the duo predicted 180 total days of tropical cyclone activity; the season actually saw 137. The numbers for 2009 were off as well: 136 days of cyclone activity were predicted, but only 66 cropped up.

“Beyond five days or so, that’s where the crystal ball gets a little fuzzy,” Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for NOAA, said.

“You can predict seasonal trends fairly well months in advance. But the devil’s in the details. Which ones will stay over open water and which will hit land?”

And that type of more immediate forecasting has actually improved dramatically, Mr Vaccaro and Mr Klotzbach both said.

“Hurricane forecasting has come a long way,” Mr Vaccaro said. “Once a storm does form, our forecast skills are quite high in being able to predict where that storm will hit.”

The challenge lies in understanding the forces at work, he said. The long-term seasonal outlooks are based on large-scale, slow-moving climate factors things like ocean temperatures, the presence of a La Nina or El Nino force, weather patterns, and so on. But the birth and eventual path of an individual storm is dependent on short-term weather patterns the position of the jet stream or the presence of a cold front.

“Those day-to-day weather patterns are very fluid and have a tremendous impact on the strength and track of a specific storm,” Mr Vaccaro said.

“Our April forecasts have shown reasonably good skills and are getting better over the years,” Mr Klotzbach said. “When you’re forecasting the weather a week from now versus tomorrow, you’re going to put a lot more faith in tomorrow’s forecast.”

Mr Klotzbach added: “Our knowledge of how storms work still isn’t perfect.”

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Published Jun 1, 2012 at 10:35 am (Updated Jun 1, 2012 at 10:34 am)

Prediction: 12 named tropical storms, five named hurricanes and two major hurricanes

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