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NOAA hurricane forecast predicts busy 2020 season

Hurricane Dorian makes landfall on North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Sept. 6, 2019. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images)
Hurricane Dorian makes landfall on North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Sept. 6, 2019. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images) (Handout/Getty)

The federal government’s hurricane season forecast, released Thursday, predicts an above-average season, offering little hope of a break from strong storms in an already challenging year.

The forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls for six to 10 hurricanes, of which three to six could achieve major hurricane strength. A major hurricane is one that reaches at least Category 3 status, which requires winds of at least 111 mph.

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“NOAA’s analysis of current and seasonal atmospheric conditions reveals a recipe for an active Atlantic hurricane season this year,” said Neil Jacobs, acting NOAA administrator.

An average season produces six Atlantic hurricanes, three of which attain major hurricane strength. Last year saw six hurricanes, including Hurricane Dorian, a storm that grew into one of the most powerful on record and brought catastrophic damage to the Bahamas.

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NOAA said there’s a 60% chance of an above-average season, a 30% chance of an average season and 0% chance of a below-average season.

The 2020 forecast, produced by NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, cited unusually warm water in the Atlantic Ocean and the likely absence of the climate phenomenon called El Niño, which can suppress hurricane formation.

The prediction was in line with forecasts from universities and private weather services, which said to expect a busy season. But there will be additional forecasts issued before the season’s peak, which runs from August through October.

The prediction calls for 13 to 19 named storms — tropical or subtropical storms and hurricanes, which covers storms with wind speeds of at least 39 miles per hour.

El Niño is the occasional warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean that can influence worldwide weather patterns. In the Atlantic, El Niño tends to suppress hurricane formation by fostering high-level crosswinds that disrupt the formation of tropical storms and hurricanes, preventing them from establishing their characteristic structure.

Also possible is the appearance of a La Niña, a cooling in the Pacific that can suppress high-level crosswinds, or wind shear, creating conditions more conducive to the formation of hurricanes, said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead hurricane season forecaster. If a La Niña develops, he said, the number of hurricanes this season could be at the high end of the range.

Climate change is expected to exert considerable influence on hurricanes, possibly leading to stronger, wetter storms.

But while climate change is a reality and can enhance the impact of storms through higher sea levels, it is not a factor in the season-by-season variability in the number of storms, Bell said.

Most important, he said, is the persistence of a busy period in a decades-long alternation of active periods and inactive periods for hurricanes. A busy period started in 1995, and we’re still in it.

Hurricane season runs June 1 through Nov. 30, with the peak coming in August, September and October. This season, like the past five seasons, got off to an early start, with the formation last Saturday of Tropical Storm Arthur.

There are currently no potential storms in the Atlantic, according to the hurricane center’s five-day outlook. The next named storm will be called Bertha.

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4535

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