There is a "70 percent chance" that the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season will produce 10 to 16 named storms, of which four to eight could become hurricanes, including one to four major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5, with winds of 111 mph or higher), according to NOAA's Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook, which the agency unveiled on Friday.
This most likely scenario would make for a "near-normal" season, according to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, but "uncertainty in the climate signals that influence the formation of Atlantic storms makes predicting this season particularly difficult."
Hurricane season in the Atlantic officially runs from June 1 through November 30, but may already have had two named storms before May ends. An area of low pressure northeast of the Bahamas, presently dubbed Invest 91-L, may become a tropical or subtropical depression or storm by the end of Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center; if it does, it would be named Tropical Storm Bonnie. The first named storm of the season, Hurricane Alex, formed all the way back in January, making it a most unusual case.
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"This is a more challenging hurricane season outlook than most because it's difficult to determine whether there will be reinforcing or competing climate influences on tropical storm development," said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with the Climate Prediction Center. "However, a near-normal prediction for this season suggests we could see more hurricane activity than we've seen in the last three years, which were below normal."
According to Bell, it is possible that a recent high activity era for Atlantic hurricanes, which began in 1995 and has been associated with a ocean temperature pattern called the warm phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO), has ended. The past three years have seen a shift toward a cool AMO phase, marked by cooler Atlantic Ocean temperatures; hurricane activity during those years has been weaker.
Conversely, however, the recent strong El Nino is dissipating, and NOAA is forecasting a 70 percent chance that a La Nina - which favors greater hurricane activity - will be present during the peak months of the hurricane season, which are August through October.
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However, Bell and NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan emphasized that neither the overall number of storms in a given season, nor the percentage that turn out to be major hurricanes, are necessarily indicative of the amount of damage that can result.
For example, despite the devastation it wrought in New Jersey, Sandy was not technically a major hurricane at the time it inflicted its greatest damage; in fact, it was no longer a hurricane at all, but a post-tropical cyclone. Many other factors, in addition to windspeed and whether or not it makes landfall, can affect a storm's impact, including surges, rainfall and the formation of tornadoes -- as well as the preparedness of the citizenry in its path.
And while 1992 was considered a very quiet season, with only six named storms, one of them was Hurricane Andrew, one of only three storms to be at Category 5 at landfall, which caused over $26.5 billion in damage.
In an attempt to further improve its storm observation and prediction capabilities, NOAA will this fall launch GOES-R, a next generation weather satellite that will "scan the Earth five times faster, with a resolution four times greater than ever before."
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