MIAMI - As if last month wasn't bad enough, federal hurricane forecasters boosted their outlook yesterday, predicting this season could spawn as many as 21 tropical storms and 11 hurricanes, with seven of them ballooning into intense storms.
That's a fairly sharp increase over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's May prediction, released two weeks before the June 1 start of the six-month season. That outlook called for 12 to 15 tropical storms and seven to nine hurricanes, with three to five of them becoming major ones.
The revised forecast reflects the growing confidence of a team of NOAA scientists that favorable atmospheric and oceanic conditions will keep the already record-breaking season on track to become among the busiest ever.
"If we're wrong and it's not as active, I think everybody would be pretty happy about it," said Chris Landsea, a meteorologist with NOAA's hurricane research division. "But that's not likely. It looks like we'll have a very busy August, September and October."
If he and the rest of the NOAA team are correct, the 2005 season, which already has produced an unprecedented seven named storms, will mark the ninth above-average season in 11 years, supporting their conclusion that the Atlantic basin is in the midst of another decades-long cycle of more - and more intense - hurricanes.
"The key is not really that we already have had seven tropical storms, but that two major hurricanes - Dennis and Emily - have already developed," said Gerry Bell, who leads the NOAA team. "By having those systems form in July shows that the atmospheric winds and pressure patterns are already in place to support a very active season."
Dennis, which struck Florida's Panhandle, and Emily, which pummeled the Yucatan, became the strongest July hurricanes on record. Both Category 4 storms, Dennis posted top winds of 150 mph while Emily reached 155 mph, just one mile shy of a top-of-the-chart Category 5 storm.
Record-keepers know of only one other July, back in 1916, spawning two major storms, those classified as Category 3, with minimum sustained winds of 111 mph, or higher.
NOAA's revised outlook specifically calls for 18 to 21 tropical storms, with nine to 11 of them blossoming into hurricanes and five to seven of those growing into major hurricanes.
NOAA scientists attributed the increase in storms in their revised forecast, as well as the season's record-setting start, to warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures, low wind shear and favorable winds off the west coast of Africa.
If the season ends up meeting the upper range of the revised prediction, it would approach the busiest on record. For now, 1993 claims the title for most tropical storms, with 21, while 1969 holds the record for most hurricanes, with 11. And 1950 produced the most intense storms ever - eight in a single season, Landsea said.
He and the other scientists, however, could not predict what coastal residents probably want to know most: the likely targets of the expected storms. But they still believe the outlooks, which have been fairly accurate since their debut in 1998, are valuable, if for nothing else than serving as a wake-up call.
"This update is for people who did not do what they were supposed to do in June," said James Franklin, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center. "This is a reminder that they need to have a hurricane plan in place."
And in case anyone need any nudging, Franklin was predicting that a depression moving north between the Bahamas and Bermuda would become Tropical Storm Harvey by last night. If so, Harvey, which was not expected to threaten the United States, will be the earliest eighth named storm on record. The current record is August 15.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.