Get ready to batten down the hatches. Again.
In a preseason forecast issued Thursday, Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project predicts the upcoming hurricane season that begins June 1 will again be busy, although not as bad as the brutal 2017 season. The forecast calls for seven hurricanes, three hurricanes at Category 3 intensity or worse, and 14 named storms.
Hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach, a protégé of pioneering meteorologist William Gray, blamed warm waters in the western Atlantic and the mediocre odds for an El Niño in the Pacific for the uptick.
“The odds of getting a real gangbusters El Niño that kills the season is slim,” he said. “We can’t rule anything out, but the odds are reduced.”
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This year’s forecast, the 35th in what has become a traditional season opener, relies on 29 years worth of observational data, although Klotzbach and fellow forecaster Michael Bell warn that no prediction is guaranteed. The forecast will be updated, and likely improve, in late May and again in August before the peak of the season kicks in.
“It’s like trying to pick who’s going to win the NCAA tournament in the first round,” he said. “Your odds are a lot higher in the Final Four.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to issue its forecast for the season in late May, said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
If Colorado State’s forecast holds true, another busy season could draw a collective moan from South Florida and the Caribbean after a punishing 2017 season. The Atlantic churned up a record 10 hurricanes in a row last year, including Harvey, Irma and Maria, for a total of 17 named storms and six major hurricanes. On average, the Atlantic produces 12 named storms and just three major hurricanes.
The accumulated cyclone energy — which tallies the sheer force of a hurricane season by totaling the number, duration and strength of storms — was the seventh highest ever recorded and the worst since 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma hammered the Gulf Coast and South Florida.
While most of Florida has recovered, parts of the Keys where affordable housing is tight continue to struggle. As of March, Monroe County said nearly 200 families still lived in temporary FEMA trailers.
To create the forecast, Klotzbach and Bell looked at past years with similar ocean and atmospheric conditions, including weak La Niña and El Niño patterns. Because ocean temperatures that can fuel hurricanes remain uncertain over the summer and fall, they looked at a wide range of temperatures and came up with five comparable seasons. One of those, 1960, included lethal Hurricane Donna, a Category 4 storm that killed more than 125 people as it wound through the Caribbean, including 13 in the Keys.
The forecast also looked at the probability of landfall and put the odds of a Florida-East Coast landfall at 61 percent for a tropical storm, 54 percent for a hurricane and 39 percent for a major hurricane.
Klotzbach said some conditions could still change to alter the forecast. If an El Niño blossoms in the Pacific on the heels of the fizzling La Niña, hurricane-smothering wind shear could increase in the Atlantic. It’s also not yet clear whether ocean temperatures will heat up enough over the summer to fuel more intense storms. But since activity in the Atlantic doesn’t typically pick up until August, he said, there’s plenty of time to improve the forecast.
“People see June and July come around and not much happens. That’s normal. That happened last year,” he said. “If you had talked to me [in early August], I would have said so far it’s a benign season. Six weeks later it wasn’t benign anymore.”
This story was updated to show the correct year Hurricane Donna occurred.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich