The word on the tip of some meteorologists’ tongues ahead of the 2016 hurricane season is “average.” One early forecast predicts an average number of named storms this season of average strength, with the average likelihood they’ll make landfall along the U.S. coastline.
But that doesn’t mean Florida can drop its guard this hurricane season.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen warned Floridians not to be lulled into complacency.
“Regardless of how many storms are forecast for the season,” he said, “it only takes one hitting you to make it a bad year.”
A Colorado State University seasonal outlook, published April 14, predicts 13 named storms this season, which runs June 1 to Nov. 30. That includes Hurricane Alex, which formed in the Atlantic in January. The median number of storms from 1981 to 2010 is 12.
Including Alex, forecasters expect to see six hurricanes — storms with wind sustained speeds of 111 mph or greater — this year. The median is 6½.
University scientists also predict there will be two major hurricanes — Category 3 or higher. Two was the median during that time period.
NOAA’s seasonal outlook is expected to be released May 27.
The reason the predictions are so close to the median is that there are two opposing factors at play that essentially cancel each other out, according to Phil Klotzbach, research scientist with Colorado State University and author of the university’s forecast report. The first is the weakening El Niño and the second is cooler water in the northern Atlantic.
El Niño, warmer-than-normal water in the Pacific Ocean, increases wind shear in the Caribbean Sea, ripping hurricanes apart. But after a strong El Niño that brought above-average rainfall and tornadoes to Florida, but largely missed Tampa, the weather pattern is weakening just in time for hurricane season, leaving the door open for storms.
Another factor could be the colder-than-normal Pacific waters of La Niña, said 10Weather WTSP chief meteorologist Jim Van Fleet.
“And usually, when that happens, it ups the chances of a U.S. landfall” by up to 50 percent, he said.
Counteracting that, though, is the cold north Atlantic Ocean, Klotzbach said. Cold waters send high pressure south to the tropical Atlantic, bringing with it more stable air, he said, reducing the likelihood of thunderstorms, the building blocks of hurricanes.
But, Klotzbach said, because the seasonal outlook is suspended between two opposing forces, it’s likely he and his colleagues will be constantly updating their forecasts as the season plays out.
For example, he said, the water temperature in the tropical Atlantic has stayed warm despite the colder water up north. If it remains that way, the season could be more active than predicted, as hurricanes feed on warm water.
“There’s a higher-than-normal bust potential with this forecast,” he said.
Florida is in an unprecedented dry spell in recorded history. It has been 10 years since the last hurricane, Wilma, hit the state during the hyperactive 2005 season that included Katrina and Rita. Wilma caused widespread destruction in South Florida and was responsible in one way or another for dozens of deaths. Previously, the longest Florida had gone without a hurricane since 1878 was five years, between 1980 and 1984.
“If you had gone to Vegas back in 2005, after the season they had, and said you wanted to bet Florida won’t be hit with another hurricane for the next 10 years,” Klotzbach said, “you probably would have gotten some pretty good odds on that one.”
The Colorado State report, which uses decades of data to create statistical models about the future, estimates the chances of a hurricane hitting the East Coast, including Florida, is 59 percent. The chance of one hitting the gulf coast is similar.
Feltgen warned that because it has been such a long time since the last hurricane, the impact of the next storm to make landfall could be amplified by the state’s inexperienced residents.
“One of the real concerns is that since Wilma, we’ve got 3 million people who have moved to the state of Florida,” he said. “That’s a tremendous amount of inexperience.
The state has been hit by tropical storms during that time period, though. Debby made landfall north of Cedar Key in 2012, and the storm surge flooded roads all over the Tampa Bay area. Even storms that never make landfall can still cause surges.
That’s why, Feltgen said, it’s important to plan as if you’ll be hit.
“Remember, the farther away we are from the last one, the closer we are to the next one,” he said.
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @josh_solomon15.