The looming Atlantic hurricane season will likely be active but not nearly as punishing as last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.
During a briefing for the annual preseason forecast, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Neil Jacobs said the agency expects to see 10 to 16 named storms, five to nine hurricanes and one to four major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or more. An average season in the Atlantic gets three major hurricanes and 12 named storms.
But forecasters warned that prediction could change if an El Niño forms or cooler Atlantic waters begin to warm as they did last year.
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"The Atlantic temperatures are cooler than average right now and the models that we use to predict temperatures are predicting them to warm up as we go through the season," said Gerry Bell, NOAA' s lead seasonal forecaster. "We're expecting that temperature to be near average and that's one of the reasons we're expecting a near normal season."
During the brutal 2017 season, when the Atlantic churned out a record 10 hurricanes in a row, Atlantic waters were very warm, Bell said. In addition to the sheer number, the season also produced a number of long-lasting storms, including Irma, which set a new record for the intensity and duration of winds in a hurricane.
As the season nears its peak months between August and October, it's also possible an El Niño will form in the Pacific and begin generating upper levels winds across the Atlantic that help weaken tropical systems.
"The factor will be whether the El Niño forms and does it form in time and of sufficient strength to weaken the season," he said.
In making the prediction, forecasters also looked at a decades long weather pattern called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation that helps control ocean temperatures. The Atlantic has been in a warm phase since about 1995.
"Since it lasts for decades at a time, it's difficult to say when it's ending or switching phases," Bell said. "At least through last season, the warm Atlantic signal certainly had not faded and it looks like we’re still in this high activity period for Atlantic hurricanes."
The seasonal forecast, made every year in May before the start of the season on June 1, is meant to provide an outlook for the coming season and does not predict how many storms may make landfall. The forecasts also have a 70 percent rate of accuracy.
This week the season also looked to get an early start with a system churning in the Gulf of Mexico becoming better defined. On Thursday morning, National Hurricane Center forecasters gave the system a 70 percent chance of forming over two days and an 80 percent chance in five days as it nears the Gulf coast.
"Regardless of the seasonal hurricane prediction, Atlantic and Gulf Coast residents need to prepare every single year," Bell said, "because we know hurricanes can strike in a relatively quiet year and we know, like last year, we can have a lot of hurricanes striking."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the forecast for the number of named storms.