The Atlantic hurricane season officially kicks off Sunday, and federal forecasters say odds are we'll be seeing fewer hurricanes than normal.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects an El Nino to develop this summer, a weather phenomenon that packs westerly winds that can rip the heads off tropical storms in the Atlantic before they can grow into hurricanes.
As result, forecasters predict a 50 percent chance of a below-normal season, a 40 percent chance of a near-normal season, and a mere 10 percent chance of an above-normal season.
The hurricane season runs June 1 to November 30.
In that time, NOAA says, there's a 70 percent chance the Atlantic will see eight to 13 named storms — three to six of which will build into hurricanes, including one or two major ones.
This outlook is just under the seasonal average of 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
A named storm has winds of at least 39 mph, a hurricane 74 mph, and a major hurricane 111 mph.
What forecasters can't predict this far out, of course, is whether any — or all — of those blows will ever hit land.
"It only takes one hurricane or tropical storm making landfall to have disastrous impacts on our communities," Joe Nimmich, FEMA associate administrator for Response and Recovery, cautioned in NOAA's announcement
Local meteorologist Lyle Alexander with the National Weather Service in Wakefield agreed that Hampton Roads should take the upbeat forecast with a grain of salt.
"You still have to be responsible," Alexander said Friday. "Because it just takes one (hurricane) to mess things up. Or, even worse, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Even seasons with fewer hurricanes can still pack a punch, he said.
"Back in 1992, that was an extremely slow season, maybe three or five named storms," Alexander said. "But that was the year Hurricane Andrew struck southern Florida. That was an extremely devastating hurricane. … Even if you have a low number of hurricanes, that doesn't mean we can just sit back and say, 'Well, we don't have much to worry about.'"
During National Hurricane Preparedness Week, which concluded Saturday, NOAA offered bilingual public service announcements and tips at http://www.ready.gov/hurricanes and http://www.hurricanes.gov/prepare.
It also rolled out a new interactive mapping tool on its website that will enable users to check the storm surge threat in their coastal communities in advance of a specific event. According to NOAA, the map can be used when a hurricane or tropical storm watch is first issued, or about 48 hours before the expected onset of tropical storm-force winds.
NOAA says it has improved its forecasting model by 10 percent over last year.
To help in NOAA's research and forecasting, unmanned Global Hawk aircraft will launch out of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore between Aug. 26 and Sept. 29, the peak of the hurricane season.
This will be the third year for these flights to study the development of Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes. NASA will also study surface winds and storm formation using a space-based observatory, as well as a monitoring instrument set to launch this season to the International Space Station.
"This year, we're going full-force into tropical cyclone research," NASA meteorologist Scott Braun said in a statement Thursday. Braun is a principal investigator for the Global Hawk's Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel mission, or HS3, which is overseen by the Earth System Science Pathfinder Program at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.
Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane forecaster at NOAA, said the Atlantic has seen above-normal seasons in 12 of the last 20 years. He said both the anticipated El Nino and projected near-average Atlantic ocean temperatures suggest light activity this year.
NOAA's forecast last year, of course, didn't pan out. Federal experts initially predicted an unusually busy season, but the Atlantic saw only 13 named storms, two Category 1 hurricanes, and no major ones.
NOAA says it will issue an updated outlook in early August, just before the season peak for 2014.
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun