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By Christopher Doering
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season will be active with as many as nine hurricanes expected to form, U.S. government forecasters predicted on Thursday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast 12 to 16 named storms this season, with six to nine developing into hurricanes. Two to five could be major ones of Category 3 or higher with winds above 110 miles per hour (177 km per hour), the agency said in its annual forecast.
NOAA said there was a 60 to 70 percent probability of its prediction being accurate, the first time the agency has issued a probability with its forecast. It follows the last two years when NOAA called for active hurricane seasons only to see little or no impact on the United States.
“We can’t predict with 100 percent certainty. Science is not that exact,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, head of NOAA. “It only takes one to make it a bad season,” he added.
NOAA cited warm ocean water, favorable atmospheric conditions and the impact from La Nina in making its forecast of an active season.
The hurricane season officially starts on June 1 and typically peaks between late August and mid-October.
The United States has made it through largely unscathed during the last two years. Only one minor storm reached the United States during the 2007 season and it escaped any impact in 2006.
The quiet seasons were a reprieve for U.S. residents after two devastating years.
The U.S. Gulf Coast, Mexico, Caribbean and Central American countries were battered during 2005. A record four major hurricanes hit the United States, including Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, killing around 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast and causing $80 billion in damage. The 2004 season saw Florida struck by four powerful hurricanes.
An average Atlantic hurricane season brings 11 tropical storms with six hurricanes, including two major hurricanes, NOAA said.
The agency said conditions remained similar to those seen since 1995 when the Atlantic moved into a period of heightened hurricane activity expected to last up to 40 years. They include favorable atmospheric winds and warmer sea surface temperatures. Hurricanes draw energy from warm water.
A wild card in the weather this season could be La Nina, which is beginning to fade in the eastern Pacific.
La Nina is an unusual cooling of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures that can trigger widespread weather changes around the world.
It generally results in conditions that favor hurricanes in the Atlantic while its opposite effect, El Nino, generates wind shear that makes it difficult for hurricanes to stay together.
“One of the uncertainties for this year’s outlook is the strength of La Nina impacts during the peak of the season,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
“If La Nina stays substantial the (hurricane) activity could certainly be up at the higher end of the predicted ranges.”
U.S. weather forecasters, including private and university researchers, also have predicted that 2008 will be an active hurricane season.
A Colorado State University team of hurricane experts has predicted 15 tropical storms, with eight growing to hurricane strength. WSI Corp and London-based Tropical Storm Risk have issued similar forecasts.
David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the agency had doubled in size in two years and had changed its culture from being reactive to proactive. The agency was widely criticized for a slow response following Hurricane Katrina.
“Americans in hurricane-prone states must get serious and be prepared,” said Paulison. “Government ... is not the entire answer.”
NOAA will update its hurricane forecast on Aug. 7.
Additional reporting by Robert Green in Tampa; Editing by Jim Loney and Eric Beech