The Atlantic storm total could tie 1933's record high of 21.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With the peak of hurricane season just weeks away, government forecasters warned Tuesday that the East Coast may face one of the worst years on record.
They expect 11 to 14 more tropical storms in the Atlantic by the time the season expires in November. On top of the seven that have already formed -- a record number by this point in the season -- that would make a total of 18 to 21 named storms.
That's a dramatic upgrade from preseason predictions. Forecasters expected a busy year, but nothing like they've seen so far.
Before the season started, they had called for 12 to 15 named storms, with up to nine growing into hurricanes -- three to five of them intense.
Now, with up to 21 named storms expected, they predict nine to 11 will become hurricanes -- five to seven of them intense.
The upgraded prediction was made jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Hurricane Center at a morning news conference in Washington, D.C.
Forecasters say warm seas and favorable winds are conspiring to supercharge the Atlantic this summer, whipping up storms fast and fierce.
Two formed in June (the last time that happened was 1986). Five more popped up in July, the most ever in that month.
On average, sea temperatures in the Atlantic are two to three degrees above normal, giving storms extra fuel as they form in a tropical belt between Africa and the Caribbean.
Cause of increase
Despite a recent report linking stronger storms to global warming, government forecasters say they believe this active season is part of a decades-long trend first identified in 1998.
Hurricane seasons tend to wax and wane in 20- to 30-year cycles, said Gerry Bell, a lead meteorologist with NOAA. The current active cycle started in the mid-1990s, after a calmer period in the 1970s and '80s.
During those calmer decades, said Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, director of the National Weather Service, "we built up the coastline, not expecting many hurricanes."
Now, coastal residents are facing the consequences.
On average, Bell said, "we can certainly expect to see more hurricane damage" as the active cycle continues for the next 10 to 20 years. "We expect more hurricanes striking the United States."
The record for named Atlantic storms was set in 1995, with 19 -- signaling the beginning of the more active period.
But the worst season in history, going back to 1851, was in 1933, when 21 tropical storms formed in the Atlantic. Forecasters weren't naming storms yet.
After using up names
If the tropics make it to 21, forecasters would use up all the names they've already set aside for this hurricane season -- through the "W" storm, Wilma -- and would have to begin naming any additional storms after Greek letters, staring with Alpha.
More important than names, though, is what a record or near-record season would mean in terms of damage to the coast.
In an active season like this one, Bell said, an average of two to three hurricanes make U.S. landfall, while others stay out to sea, curving north through the Atlantic long before approaching land.
However, a strong high-pressure system near Bermuda could continue to steer storms toward the East Coast, as it did last year -- sending a record four hurricanes into Florida.
There are no tropical storms currently in the Atlantic.