Federal scientists are predicting a “near-normal” hurricane season in the Atlantic and “above-normal” cyclone activity in the central Pacific.
The forecasts come on the heels of a destructive 2018 season. In September, slow-moving Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina and dumped as much as 35 inches of rain in some areas, causing devastating flooding. The following month, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle as one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the U.S. in decades.
“At one point last year, four named storms were active simultaneously,” Wilbur Ross, secretary of the Department of Commerce, said at a news conference Thursday in Washington. “Like Hamlet’s slings of arrows of outrageous fortune, the storms that impacted the U.S. in 2018 caused $50 billion in damages.”
The 2019 Atlantic outlook estimates a 40 percent chance of an average season, with the development of nine to 15 named tropical storms. Four to eight of those storms, the agency predicted, will become hurricanes. And two to four will become major hurricanes — that is, Category 3 or higher.
The outlook includes all activity in the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. It does not forecast how many storms might make landfall.
“The key message is we’re expecting a normal season, but regardless that’s a lot of activity,” Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane season forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said Thursday. “You need to start getting prepared for the hurricane season now.”
The Atlantic forecast reflects what Neil Jacobs, NOAA’s acting administrator, described as “competing signals.”
“On one hand, the ongoing El Nino is expected to persist and suppress activity in the Atlantic,” Jacobs said Thursday. “On the other hand, a combination of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean, combined with a west African monsoon, favors increased activity.”
The Atlantic forecast comes a day after NOAA officials announced a 70 percent chance of an above-normal season in the central Pacific, driven by warm ocean temperatures and weak protective wind shear. Five to eight tropical cyclones are expected to develop there.
The official hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. But the season got an early start this year when Subtropical Storm Andrea formed earlier this week south of Bermuda.
The scientific community — including experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — has long warned that anthropogenic climate change influences extreme weather events. The 2015 National Climate Assessment concluded that “hurricane intensity and rainfall are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.” Rainfall rates near the center of hurricanes are expected to increase by an average of 20 percent by the end of the century, according to the report.
This story has been updated with more detail from last year and a quote from Ross.