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Anything is possible when it comes to storm season



Published: Wed, June 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



One scientist predicts more storms this season, another says because of May's rain, expect fewer hurricanes.

SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's no joke. Hurricane season, which starts today, brings good news and bad news.

The bad news first: A Colorado scientist, with a respectable record of predicting the number of hurricanes each season, sees more storms on the horizon this year.

Now the good news: A veteran meteorologist with the National Weather service, whose theory also holds water, says the number of hurricane landfalls is linked to how wet the season's May is, and the month just ended had plenty of rain, which means fewer storms striking Florida.

Either way, experts urge residents to be ready. As last season proved, when an unprecedented four hurricanes roared into the state, anything is possible, they say.

The downside

The gloomy prognostication was issued Tuesday by William Gray, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University.

Gray, who has used past weather patterns to predict storm counts for more than 20 years, foresees 15 named storms over the six-month hurricane season. Of those, he expects eight to develop into hurricanes, and four to escalate into intense storms packing winds of 111 miles an hour or more. That's up from his earlier predictions for this year and more storm activity than last year.

But as many forecasters say, it's not the number of storms that counts, it's where they strike.

Gray calculated the probability of a hurricane hitting the U.S. East Coast at 59 percent, up from the last century's average of 31 percent. The entire U.S. shoreline, including the Gulf of Mexico coast, has a 77 percent chance of a hurricane landfall.

"It looks like it's going to be an active season," Philip Klotzbach, Gray's research associate, said from his Fort Collins, Colo., office. "People should take the necessary precautions."

Klotzbach said this year is a continuation of a decades-long trend of above-average storm seasons that started in 1995. "These phases tend to last between 25 and 40 years," he said.

Weak winds failed to chill the Atlantic this winter, so the warmer water translates into more and fiercer hurricanes. "The warmer water gives them more fuel to develop into storms," Klotzbach said.

In their spring predictions last year, Gray and his colleagues forecast 14 named storms and eight hurricanes, three of them intense. They were close. The actual season saw 15 named storms, nine hurricanes -- four of which struck Florida -- and six intense storms.

The average season has 10 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

The upside

But if there's a bright side to the season, it comes from a rainy May.

Jim Lushine, a senior meteorologist with the weather service office west of Miami, has studied 75 years of monthly rainfall statistics and found that the rainier the month of May, the fewer hurricanes hit Florida.

This year, May had sufficient rain to predict fewer hits. For Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, the average yearly rainfall is five inches. The month just past, thanks to some last-minute thunderstorms, saw 5.9 inches.

"As the raindrops fall, so do the chances of a South Florida hurricane," Lushine said. "We're about three times as wet this May as we were last year, and that's a nice feeling."

May's rains, Lushine found, indicate the power of the Bermuda High, a high-pressure area over the ocean that, depending on its strength, can push a hurricane toward or away from the state. A lot of rain means the system is weak; a dry May indicates the Bermuda High will be strong enough to push a hurricane toward South Florida.

For example, Lushine said, the second-driest May on record was in 1992 -- when Hurricane Andrew ravaged the state.

Lushine said he's so confident of the rainfall indicator, he's postponing a retirement in which he will live in Alaska part time.

"I'll be here for what I think will be a real quiet season," he said. "I'm betting a few months of my retirement time on it."




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