WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This Atlantic hurricane season will be slightly less active than predicted, with up to nine hurricanes expected to form, the U.S. government’s top climate agency forecast on Thursday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the 2007 season could produce between 13 and 16 named storms, with seven to nine becoming hurricanes and three to five of these classified as “major” hurricanes.
In May, NOAA predicted 13 to 17 named storms, with seven to 10 becoming hurricanes, of which three to five could develop into major ones with winds of over 110 miles per hour (177 kph).
“The conditions are ripe for an above-normal season,” said NOAA meteorologist Gerry Bell. “The fact that we’ve seen no hurricanes so far means absolutely nothing.”
The Atlantic hurricane season, which ends on November 30, typically peaks between August 1 and late October. In June and July, an average of only one or two named storms develop. So far this season, there have been three named storms in the Atlantic — Andrea, Barry and Chantal.
NOAA’s seasonal outlooks do not specify where and when tropical storms and hurricanes could strike. Still, forecasters said similar hurricane seasons have generated two to four storms that made landfall in the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Bell said the more narrow range of activity since May reflects the development of a weaker-than-expected La Nina and a cooler sea surface in the eastern tropical Atlantic.
La Nina, which means “girl” in Spanish, is an unusual cooling of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures and can trigger widespread changes in weather around the world, including a higher-than-normal number of hurricanes in the Atlantic.
There was a “greater than 50 percent” chance that the weather anomaly La Nina will form during the peak of the hurricane season, NOAA said.
U.S. weather forecasters, including private and university researchers, all have recently lowered their hurricane outlooks due to cooler-than-expected ocean surface temperatures.
Last week, a Colorado State University team of hurricane experts, led by William Gray, predicted 15 tropical storms, with eight growing to hurricane strength. That was down from an earlier forecast of 17 storms and nine hurricanes. WSI Corporation and London-based Tropical Storm Risk also have cut their forecasts.
A year ago, forecasters also predicted an active season, but the unexpected development of El Nino was widely credited with curtailing hurricanes in the Atlantic, giving a respite to the U.S. Gulf Coast and Central American countries hit hard during the record-setting hurricane season of 2005.
“This year, there is no chance of El Nino,” said Bell.
Last season produced 10 tropical storms, of which five became hurricanes and two turned into intense hurricanes. The average hurricane season generates 9.6 named storms, 5.9 hurricanes and 2.3 major storms.
Oil markets, already on edge due to tight supplies that sent U.S. oil futures to a record high of $78.77 a barrel on August 1, are closely watching hurricane activity.
“This is the time of year when hurricanes become a force in oil supply,” said Robert Ebel, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “The market is so sensitive to anything that could impact the supply side.”
In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through the heart of the U.S. oil patch in the Gulf of Mexico, toppling 113 offshore platforms, smashing undersea pipelines and shutting down about a quarter of U.S. oil-refining capacity.
The resulting disruption in gasoline supplies sent pump prices skyrocketing to record highs at the time of just above $3 a gallon.
additional reporting by Chris Baltimore