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This Storm Cycle Just Getting Warmed Up

Times Staff Writer

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, the most active and destructive on record, came to an official end Wednesday, with weather specialists cautioning that at least 10 more stormy years lay ahead.

As a fitting coda to an extraordinary year that saw a record 13 hurricanes in the Atlantic basin -- including Katrina, which claimed more than 1,300 lives and caused more property damage than any hurricane in U.S. history -- a new, postseason storm was spinning at sea.

Tropical Storm Epsilon, with winds of 65 mph, was boiling late Wednesday in the Atlantic 650 miles east of Bermuda, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

“Mother Nature doesn’t always follow our program,” said spokesman Frank Lepore.

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The just-concluded six-month Atlantic tropical storm season shattered records, many of which had stood for decades, including most named storms, most hurricanes and most Category 5 hurricanes since record-keeping began in 1851.

The National Hurricane Center’s website quoted retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, as calling 2005 “arguably ... the most devastating hurricane season the country has experienced in modern times.”

More stormy weather is coming, climatologists said.

“We’re 11 years into an active hurricane cycle, and history shows that they last anywhere from 20 to 30, even 40 years at a time,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md. “We expect high levels of hurricanes -- and hurricane landfalls -- for the next decade or even longer.”

“This has been a heck of a season, hasn’t it?” said William M. Gray, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who issues a closely watched forecast of annual hurricane activity. “Everything looks like we’ll have a very active season next year too.”

Most meteorologists agree that the Atlantic Ocean experiences multi-decade cooling and warming cycles, with warmer water spawning increased storm activity since 1995. This year, surface ocean temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees higher than normal, one of the reasons for the frenzied hurricane activity, Bell said.

“We’re in an active hurricane era, and people have to come to grips with that,” the forecaster said. In the generally quiescent years of 1970-94, there were three active hurricane seasons and, on average, one hurricane made landfall in the United States each year.

Since 1995, Bell said, nine of the last 11 storm seasons have had above-average activity. And since 2002, an average of three hurricanes have reached U.S. shores each year. A tropical storm is reclassified as a hurricane if its winds reach a constant speed of 74 mph or more.

“This is something we’re going to have to live with for the next decade and perhaps longer,” Bell said. As hurricane activity has grown, so has the population potentially at risk. According to the U.S. Census, Bell said, about 30% of Americans, or 87 million people, live along the Gulf and Atlantic shorelines.

“Now that the coast is built up, we have a lot more people living in Hurricane Alley,” Bell said.

Another meteorological factor that made 2005 an event-packed year, with a record four hurricanes of Category 3 intensity or greater striking the United States, was that prevailing atmospheric conditions ushered the storms toward land, Gray said.

“It’s very rare to have a season so active and have steering currents that move the storms over land,” Gray said. On Tuesday, he and fellow researchers at Colorado State will issue their first hurricane forecast for 2006.

Though next year should be quite active, he said, it was unlikely there would be a repeat of the wind conditions that helped guide four of 2005’s hurricanes -- Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- to landfalls in the United States.

“Odds are we won’t have that,” Gray said.

In 2005, there were so many tropical storms and hurricanes -- 26 as of Wednesday -- that forecasters for the first time ran out of the men’s and women’s names used to designate them, and had to resort to Greek letters.

The lineup in the season that was: Arlene, Bret, Cindy, Dennis, Emily, Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irene, Jose, Katrina, Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe, Rita, Stan, Tammy, Vince, Wilma, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon.

The previous record for tropical storms in a season was 21, in 1933. But as some weather experts noted, that was in the age before satellites could detect storm systems on the high seas. Some tropical storms and hurricanes that year, and in other years, may have been missed because they never got close to land.

Wilma, which pounded Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and swung east and plowed across the southern Florida peninsula, set a record as the most powerful storm ever measured in the Atlantic basin. Forecasters said the reading came from a new kind of information-collecting dropsonde released by a hurricane chase plane.

Epsilon, the latest arrival, was expected to veer to the northeast well away from Bermuda and the United States, but should subject the British island territory to heavy surf and rough waves, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said.

Historically, said Lepore, the Hurricane Center spokesman, 97% of tropical storm activity takes place between June 1 and Nov. 30, the official storm season. But in 1984, Hurricane Lili formed in late December and didn’t peter out until Christmas Eve.

In the final month of 2005, “we still could be looking at more activity,” Lepore said.

Hurricane forecaster Stacy Stewart, who was writing the daytime bulletins on Epsilon, said he hoped it would prove to be “Omega,” the conclusion of a grueling season for forecasters as well as coastal residents. He said he foresaw a busy storm season in 2006.

“Usually after an active year like this, it will come down,” Stewart said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be below average. It will probably be above average.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A record hurricane season, and here’s why

The busiest hurricane season on record has ended, with 26 named storms forming in the Atlantic Ocean between June 1 and Wednesday. An examination of the last 125 years of hurricane activity along the East and Gulf coasts of the United States shows that tropical cyclone frequency ebbs and flows in 20- to 30-year cycles connected to rising and falling water temperature in the western Atlantic. On average, six major hurricanes (Category 3 to 5) strike the United States per decade. Here’s a look at the history of hurricanes making landfall in the U.S. since 1880:

1881

Georgia/South Carolina hurricane, 700 killed

1893

Sea Islands hurricane, 2,000 killed

Chenier Caminanda hurricane, 1,400 killed

1900

Galveston hurricane, deadliest storm on record, 8,000 killed

1928

Lake Okeechobee hurricane, 2,500 killed

Great Miami hurricane, costliest storm ever, $100 billion

1935

Labor Day hurricane, strongest storm ever (Category 5)

1957

Hurricane Audrey, 390 killed

1969

Hurricane Camille, one of the deadliest (256 killed), costliest ($15 billion), strongest (Category 5) storms ever

1992

Hurricane Andrew, $40 billion (Category 5)

2005

Hurricane Katrina, 1,300 killed

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Sources: Jay Lawrimore, National Climatic Data Center; National Hurricane Center; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Weather Underground. Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald

Note: One storm not shown: Wilma


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