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Storms Ahead: NOAA’s Outlook for 2012 Hurricane Season

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The 2012 hurricane season, which has already gotten off to an early start, is likely to feature “near-normal” storm activity, government officials said on Thursday. The hurricane season outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls for a 70 percent chance that there will be between nine to 15 named storms with winds of 39 mph or higher, of which four to eight will strengthen to a hurricane with top winds of 74 mph or higher. 

Of those hurricanes, the NOAA is forecasting one to three of them will become a major hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 111 mph or higher. 

Based on the period 1981-2010, an average season produces 12 named storms with six hurricanes, including three major hurricanes. A major hurricane of Category 3 intensity or greater has not struck the U.S. since 2005’s Wilma made landfall in Florida, a record gap for the U.S., which suggests that luck may run out sooner rather than later.

Forecasters cautioned that the outlook of a near-normal season does not mean that it will be a less costly one in terms of lives lost and property destroyed. 

“That’s still a lot of activity . . . just because we’re predicting a near normal season doesn’t mean anybody’s off the hook,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal hurricane forecaster.

NOAA officials reminded reporters of a hurricane season 20 years ago that was below average in terms of overall storm activity, but it took just one storm — Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, which tore across southern Florida — to make it a historically deadly and damaging season.

Bill Read, the outgoing head of the National Hurricane Center in Miami told reporters that Hurricane Irene serves as a reminder that hurricanes are not just a concern for coastal residents. Much of that storm’s damage took place due to inland flooding in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. “This is not the first time that Mother Nature has taught us this lesson.”

The 2012 hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June 1, but there has already been one tropical storm, Alberto, a compact storm that meandered off the coast of South Carolina in mid-May before dissipating. 

The hurricane outlook reflects competing factors. Although the North Atlantic is still in an active hurricane phase that began in 1995 -- 12 of the past 17 seasons have been above normal — there is a possibility that conditions will become less favorable for tropical storms and hurricanes to develop later in the season due to the projected development of El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean. 

El Nino events tend to increase winds in the upper atmosphere over the Atlantic, and these winds can tear apart nascent storms.

This year, forecasters will enter the season with two new assets at their disposal, both of them the result of applying military technology for civilian purposes. NASA and NOAA are collaborating on a project to fly two Global Hawk aerial drones into and above Atlantic storms to observe them, and NOAA is also planning to steer small robotic boats into the heart of the powerful storms in order to get observations from areas that are too dangerous for people to venture.

Frank Marks, the director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division, said the drones have instruments that are similar to NOAA’s famous manned “hurricane hunter” aircraft, but it’s not yet clear how beneficial they will be for improving forecast accuracy.

NOAA’s seasonal outlook is similar to those issued by private forecasting firms and university researchers, with an emerging consensus that this is not likely to be a blockbuster season in terms of the number of storms. But much depends on where any storms make landfall. 

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