Forecasters predict high activity for 2006 hurricane season

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Weather forecasters are predicting an active hurricane season, which starts June 1. But will it top last years record number of 27 named storms and 14 hurricanes?

Theres no way we could have another year like last year, said Denis Phillips, chief meteorologist at WFTS-TV in Tampa.

Phillips was one of 150 weather experts who gathered at the Bahamas Weather Conference, held recently at Our Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island, to look back on the 2005 hurricane season and look ahead to the 2006 season.

The 2006 season will be an active one, with 17 named storms, of which nine will reach hurricane strength, and of those, five will be between Category 3 and Category 5 storms, said William Gray, head of the Dept. of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University.

A Category 3 storm has winds of 111 to 130 mph; a Category 5 has winds greater than 155 mph.

Gray said he is predicting a greater number of storms than he did last year. He recalculated his 2005 forecast several times during the season.

The setting is right for another active season because the sea-surface temperatures remain high, which ups the odds, he said.

Did global warming contribute to 2005s busy season? Gray does not think so.

We should not blame last year for human-induced global warming as a cause of the heightened storm activity in the Atlantic region, he said. Were in a high-activity cycle in the Atlantic Basin that began in 1995. Currents off the U.S. East Coast have caused a ridge that has steered storms westward over the U.S., especially in 2004 and 2005. Before that, there was a trough that deflected storms away from the U.S.

The earth has warmed up a half-degree centigrade or more in the last 30 years, but that is due more to ocean circulation changes and natural cycles than to anything humans have done, said Gray.

Nature will do us in, not ourselves. Were just not that influential that we can alter the earths temperature, Gray said.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said the accuracy of last years storm-tracking methods was a positive during a disastrous hurricane season.

The hurricanes that hit the Caribbean, Mexico and the U.S. coasts were major storms days before they made landfall, Mayfield said. We were able to give ample warning, and our predictions proved accurate most of the time.

What Mayfield does not want is for people to go to bed expecting a Category 1 storm but wake up facing a Category 3 or higher storm. We must continue to hone our abilities and resources to track and predict these storms as accurately and as far in advance as possible, he said.

Another expert, Will Shaffer of the National Weather Service, predicted more hurricanes in the next few years. The dice have been cold for the last 30 years, except for 2004 and 2005. Well get more storms, but I hope that 2005 will sit as the record year and not be surpassed.

A panel of experts assembled by Robert Sheets, former director of the National Hurricane Center, discussed the need for stronger building codes to protect people along hurricane-prone coastlines; the necessity to stockpile emergency supplies of batteries, water and rations; and the importance of heeding evacuation orders early.

What would happen if a hurricane were to hit New York? That scenario was described by Nicholas Coch, a professor at Queens College in New York. You havent seen anything yet until the big one hits a major urban center. Subways cannot be used as part of the evacuation picture in cities like Boston or New York, he said.

The stakes are high in coastal cities, he said. Engineers are finally waking up to the fact that its not the fluid pressure caused by hurricanes but the debris and winds spawned by these storms that break urban structures, said Coch.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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