MIAMI (Reuters) - Thanks to El Nino, the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season has been the quietest in more than a decade, offering a reprieve for residents in the danger zone and a chance for insurance firms to refill depleted coffers.
With the peak of the season -- late August to mid-October -- now behind, the Atlantic-Caribbean basin has seen just two hurricanes and a total of eight tropical storms.
El Nino, the Pacific warm-water phenomenon that can produce destructive weather in other parts of the world, played a big role in suppressing Atlantic cyclones this year, experts said.
If the full season, which runs from June through November, ended today, it would be the lowest number of storms since 1997. The last time an Atlantic season produced only two hurricanes was 1982.
After a 2008 season that produced Hurricane Ike, one of the most destructive in U.S. history, the cyclones of 2009 have had virtually no impact on the populous U.S. coasts, the vulnerable islands of the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico oil patch.
“There was for all intents and purposes no hurricane damage in the United States this year,” Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, told Reuters.
“It’s something that will help the insurance industry create very favorable earnings comparisons in the third quarter compared to the third quarter of last year,” he said.
Forecasters saw nothing on the horizon on Wednesday.
“El Nino produced an increase in wind shear,” said meteorologist Todd Crawford of private forecaster WSI Corp.
“If you have an increase in the speed of the winds aloft over the Atlantic it acts to basically chop the heads off any kinds of storms,” he said. Wind shear is a technical term for different wind speeds at different altitudes.
Crawford also said sea temperatures in the tropical Atlantic are cooler, by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.12 degrees Celsius) on average, than the blistering seasons of 2004, when four hurricanes hit Florida, and 2005, which produced 28 storms, the highest single-season total in recorded history.
Hurricanes draw energy from warm water, so cooler sea temperatures can mean fewer and less intense storms.
So far this year, only named storms Bill and Fred reached 74 miles per hour (119 km per hour), the threshold for hurricanes. Fred fizzled in the mid-Atlantic without causing damage while Bill raced through Canada’s Atlantic provinces as a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest type, causing few problems.
Ana hit the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands as a depression. Erika plowed into the same area as a tropical storm. Danny, Grace and Henri stayed out at sea.
Only Claudette, a tropical storm that sprouted suddenly in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, made a U.S. landfall, hitting the Florida panhandle.
So far, insured losses don’t appear to have climbed to the $25 million needed to mark it as a catastrophe, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
The quiet season will allow insurers to replenish from Ike, whose $12.5 billion in insured losses put it third on the list of costliest U.S. storms for the industry.
Only Katrina, which caused $43 billion in insured losses when it struck New Orleans in 2005, and Andrew’s $23 billion rampage through south Florida in 1992, cost more.
Hartwig said the industry’s net first-quarter loss of $1.2 billion turned to a profit of $5.7 billion in the second quarter. “In the third quarter that number will have increased, potentially substantially, because of the continued recovery of the markets but also very favorable comparisons with regard to catastrophic losses,” he said.
Over the past 20 years, hurricanes have accounted for 50 percent of all insured U.S. catastrophe losses and tornadoes another 25 percent, he said.
The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund has also had a chance to refill. Cash on hand climbed from $3 billion to $4.5 billion over the past year, according to data compiled by the State Board of Administration, which oversees the fund.
Although the peak has passed, the six-month season still has nearly seven weeks to run. It officially ends on November 30.
“It’s not over,” said meteorologist Jill Hasling, president of Houston’s Weather Research Center, which monitors weather for the offshore oil industry.
“There’s pretty warm water in the Gulf still,” she said. “If we get enough cold fronts in here and cool the water off, we’ll be clear for this season. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Vicki Allen