NOAA predicts busy hurricane season, but hedges bets

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins in nine days, looks likely to be fairly busy, with six to nine hurricanes, of which as many as five may swell into major storms, government forecasters said Thursday.

Conceding that such long-term outlooks can be off the mark, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the first time hedged its bets when issuing a seasonal projection.

There is a 65% probability of an above-normal season, but also a 25% chance of a near-normal one, NOAA said.

The average six-month hurricane season has 11 named storms, including six hurricanes, two of them Category 3 or greater with sustained winds of more than 110 mph. For the coming six-month season, NOAA is predicting 12 to 16 named storms.

The rather cautious forecast follows mounting criticism that such seasonal predictions don't hold much value. Notably, hurricane specialists at the National Hurricane Center in Miami-Dade County have warned such outlooks can confuse and frighten people, or, if the numbers are low, make them too complacent.

Bill Read, the center's new director, had recommended that NOAA issue its seasonal forecast with little fanfare. That advice was ignored; a full-dress news conference was held at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Read skipped the news conference to attend a workshop.

Gerry Bell, NOAA's lead hurricane forecaster, said this year's outlook is intended as a guide to give Floridians and inhabitants of other hurricane-prone states a general idea of what the coming season might hold.

The forecast makes no attempt to say whether any particular region will suffer a hurricane strike, Bell emphasized. That job belongs to the hurricane center after a storm has formed.

"Hurricane landfalls are largely determined by the atmospheric patterns in place at the time of a landfall," he said.

Two factors are expected to boost tropical activity this year: warmer-than-normal waters in the Atlantic and a weak La Nina, an atmospheric condition that promotes storm formation.

NOAA's outlook is roughly similar to that of Colorado State University climatologists Bill Gray and Phil Klotzbach, who call for 15 named storms, including eight hurricanes.

Gray and Klotzbach helped stir up the controversy over long-range forecasts by overestimating storm activity during the previous two hurricane seasons.

NOAA's seasonal forecasters were fairly accurate last year, when they projected a "very active" season with 13 to 17 named storms, including seven to 10 hurricanes, with three to five of those intense.

Last year's hurricane season ended with 15 named storms, including six hurricanes, two of which were intense.

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