The 2014 hurricane season is shaping up to be a slow one, federal forecasters said Thursday, which could make the launch of new storm surge maps predicting the location and severity of flooding less hectic.
Only eight to 13 tropical storms are projected, with three to six becoming hurricanes. Of those, no more than two are expected to become major storms.
Forecasters based the projection largely on the expectation that an El Niño weather pattern will form in Pacific waters, fueling winds and water temperatures that help stop storms in the Atlantic from strengthening. Near-average, cooler surface sea temperatures also reduce the risk, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director Kathryn Sullivan.
The hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. Since 1981, an average hurricane season has produced 12 named storms, with six hurricanes and three major storms packing winds of 111 mph or higher. But remarkably, in the past eight years, Florida, with its 1,260 miles of coastline, has had only one major hurricane — Wilma — come ashore. In 2012, Isaac sideswiped Palm Beach County, dumping between 10 and 13 inches of rain and causing major flooding.
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At a news conference held Thursday in Brooklyn, Sullivan and emergency officials repeatedly warned that just one bad storm can wreak havoc, pointing to Superstorm Sandy that struck the Northeast in 2012 when a hurricane merged with a winter storm. Sandy caused more than $50 billion in damage and spurred federal officials to rush completion of storm surge maps that will help pinpoint the path and depth of flooding during a storm.
“Sandy reminded us that loss of life and property during . . . a storm doesn’t necessarily come about from wind and rain,” Sullivan said. “It comes from storm surge.”
NOAA scientists had been working on the maps before Sandy struck, but money from the Hurricane Sandy Relief Bill last year helped speed the work, she said. The maps will tell people in real time where water from a storm surge is expected to go and how high it will rise about 48 hours before winds kick in. The maps will show water levels in comparison to the ground, not sea level or mean sea level, which in the past led to confusion.
The National Hurricane Center, based in Miami, will update the maps every six hours as information from the storm is collected, said Holly Bamford, director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service.
“The tool is going to take in conditions of tide as well as surge, which is really important,” she said. “How high a tide is has major impact.”
The maps will also be linked to local evacuation plans, said Joseph Nimmich, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who urged people to learn the plans in advance.
“There is not one of us who can withstand the surge and protect their house when it is under attack by nature,” he said. “If you’re in your house when it’s being devastated and call 911, we are unable to help you.”
The Atlantic is in the midst of a busy hurricane cycle, or what forecasters call the Multidecadal Oscillation, which started in 1995, explained Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead hurricane forecaster. Twelve of the past 20 seasons have been above average, he said. But this season, forecasters expect El Niño to cancel out the oscillation.
“I think competing factors will win out rather than having the active season as we’ve seen in the last few years,” he said.
Last season, federal predictions, along with other forecast models, dramatically miscalculated the number of storms. Forecasters expected the Atlantic to churn out 13 to 20, with seven to 11 becoming hurricanes and three to six strengthening into major storms. The season ended as one of the quietest on record, with only two minor hurricanes.
In April, William Gray, founder of Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project, and colleague Philip Klotzbach, who issue a closely watched forecast every spring, blamed the “bust” on the weakening of a deep current that carries denser, saltier water from the earth’s polar oceans and fuels stronger storms. Last year’s collapse of the current, Gray said, was the biggest observed since 1950.
Forecast models have generally been more reliable in tracking the paths of storms while struggling to accurately predict their intensity. But Thursday, Nimmich said early testing of the NOAA forecast model this year shows a 10 percent improvement over last year’s modeling.
Forecasters have not been able to determine how climate change might figure into hurricane activity or affect the fluctuating El Niño cycle, Bell said.
“We need climate models that handle both global warming and year-to-year [changes], and we’re just not there yet,” he said.