Experts: Quiet Hurricane Season Does Not Mean Clear Skies

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its predictions for the 2014 hurricane season last week, calling for a year of relatively few storms.

But hurricane watchers also warn that fewer storms does not mean that the threat of strong hurricanes making landfall is eliminated.

The Atlantic hurricane season begins on Sunday, June 1, and runs for six months, ending on November 30.

The emergence of an “El Niño” event, as a cyclical warming of ocean waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean is known, has forecasters anticipating that fewer tropical disturbances will be able to strengthen into tropical storms and hurricanes than typically would happen in a non-El Niño year.

Still, NOAA officials are predicting that between eight and 13 named storms will develop in the Atlantic Ocean this year, primarily between August and October. Between three and six can be expected to develop into hurricanes, and one or two of those are expected to strengthen into stronger storms, Category 3 storms or above.

A Category 3 storms brings with it winds varying from 111 to 130 mph and storm surges of between 9 and 12 feet.

Historically, the NOAA seasonal predictions, which are issued primarily with insurance and shipping companies in mind, are accurate about two-thirds of the time. In 2013, the federal weather agency predicted a very active year, but ultimately there were just two Atlantic storms that developed into hurricanes.

And, as noted by experts, an expected quiet year does not eliminate the threat of destructive hurricanes. In 1992, a quiet year produced Hurricane Andrew, which became one of the most destructive storms in history when it swept across southern Florida.

“Just because the deep tropics might be a little quieter in an El Niño year, we can still have development elsewhere, which is what happened with Andrew in 1992,” said Stacy Stewart, senior hurricane specialist with the U.S. National Hurricane Center. “And we’ve had years where we’ve had El Niños and ended up having very active seasons.”

During El Niño, the waters of the eastern Pacific can warm by an average temperature of 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The warming to the west produces strong winds high in the atmosphere above the Caribbean Sea. The winds tend to prevent strong storms from forming, because they tear the upper levels of the storm apart as it is building strength.

In El Niño years, hurricane watchers expect to see tropical storms develop in other areas. The Gulf of Mexico has produced some violent hurricanes in otherwise quiet years, and the warm waters east of the Bahamas, as well as those just off the east coast of Florida, can feed storms that explode into threatening hurricanes in just a day or two.

Most hurricanes that have struck Long Island formed in the central Atlantic Ocean or eastern Caribbean Sea, but the dampening effects of El Niño in those regions does not mean that the East End is out of the woods this year. Both Hurricane Belle in 1976 and Hurricane Bob in 1991 developed out of low-pressure systems east of the Bahamas and found their way to the Northeast.

Mr. Stewart warns that the seasonal forecast should not lull East Enders into a false sense of security.

“We try to constantly remind the public: Don’t look at the season forecast—you need to be watchful,” he said. “Every once in a while, you get one that sneaks through the cracks.”

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