The threat of an above-average 2010 Atlantic hurricane season has increased over the last month and it now promises to be "very active," a leading forecaster said Wednesday. The warning comes as the season also sees an unusual factor added to the mix: the Gulf oil disaster.
William Gray, the hurricane forecast pioneer who founded Colorado State University's respected storm research team, said CSU would ramp up their prediction for the 2010 season in a report due out on June 2.
"The numbers are going to go up quite high," Gray said. "This looks like a hell of a year."
Gray and Phil Klotzbach, lead forecaster with the Colorado State team, both said forecast models showing a recent shift in wind patterns and warm tropical Atlantic waters had reinforced the likelihood that a busy hurricane season was on its way.
They referred specifically to reduced wind shear probabilities due to the dissipation of the El Nino weather phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean.
"El Nino died pretty quickly over the past couple of months," Klotzbach said.
An El Nino would normally allow wind sheer to seep into the Atlantic, disrupting storm formation and pushing embryonic hurricanes out to sea far from the oil-rig rich Gulf and the U.S. mainland.
Wind shear — caused by a clash between prevailing upper-levels winds out of the west and lower-level easterly winds out of Africa — can tear apart hurricanes or break up their circulation.
Both Gray and Klotzbach said a powerful storm, particularly if it comes out of the western portion of the Gulf, could propel large quantities of oil ashore in the northern Gulf.
"The counter-clockwise circulation could push oil inland, into the inland waterways, and cause a lot of problems," Klotzbach said.
Private forecaster on same page
On Tuesday, a private weather forecasting company said the 2010 season could be the most active since 2005, which was the most active in recorded history.
Weather Services International predicted 18 named storms, 10 hurricanes and five intense hurricanes, rated as Category 3 storm with winds of 110-130 mph, or greater.
That is well above the 1950-2009 averages of 10 named storms, six hurricanes, and three intense hurricanes and slightly above the averages from the more active recent 15-year period of 14 named storm, eight hurricanes and four intense hurricanes.
These numbers are also an increase from WSI's April forecast of 16 named storms, nine hurricanes and five intense hurricanes.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its updated 2010 hurricane season forecast on Thursday.
The forecasts are widely watched by energy and commodity markets for signs of potential weather disruptions to oil and gas installations in the Gulf of Mexico during the June to November hurricane season.
Other meteorologists have already predicted conditions are ripe for an unusually destructive hurricane season, which could disrupt efforts to clean up BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
East Coast cited at higher risk
WSI said the coastal region from the Outer Banks of North Carolina northward to Maine was twice as likely as normal to experience a hurricane this year.
"Our model suggests the threat to the Northeast coast this season is on par with that in Florida and the Gulf coastal states," WSI Chief Meteorologist Todd Crawford said in a release.
WSI said the 2009 tropical season was the quietest since 1997, as an emerging El Nino event combined with relatively cool tropical Atlantic waters to suppress widespread storm development.
"However, the primary drivers for tropical activity have sharply reversed course this year and everything is in place for an incredibly active season ... eastern and central tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures are currently at record warm levels for May, even warmer than the freakishly active season of 2005," Crawford said.
The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which included Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that devastated the oil and natural gas-rich U.S. Gulf Coast, was the most active in history, causing more than 1,500 U.S. deaths and more than $115 billion in damages, according to the National Hurricane Center.
"While we've increased our forecast numbers in both of the last two monthly updates, we are still more likely to raise than lower these numbers going forward," Crawford noted.