‘Near normal’ Atlantic hurricane season predicted

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Pop's Homemade Ice Cream at 1114 S. Lake Park Boulevard closed the first weekend in October 2015 thanks to Hurricane Joaquin. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Pop’s Homemade Ice Cream in Carolina Beach closed in October 2015 when Hurricane Joaquin hit North Carolina. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center has forecast a “near normal” 2016 Atlantic hurricane season.

According to NOAA, that means a 70 percent likelihood of 10 to 16 named storms, or storms that have sustained winds of 39 miles per hour or higher. Four to eight of those could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), with the possibility of one to four major hurricanes (Category 3, which has winds of 111 mph or higher, and above).

Hurricane season is recognized as June 1 through November 30, although hurricane activity occasionally occurs outside those months.

While forecasters have predicted a 45 percent chance for a near normal season, there’s also a 30 percent chance the season will be above average and a 25 percent chance there will be below average activity.

“This is a more challenging hurricane season outlook than most because it’s difficult to determine whether there will be reinforcing or competing climate influences on tropical storm development,” lead Climate Prediction Center forecaster Gerry Bell said in a release. “However, a near normal prediction for this season suggests we could see more hurricane activity than we’ve seen in the last three years, which were below normal.”

In 2015, there were 12 named storms in the Atlantic, although the  first, Ana, developed in early May, nearly a month before the official start of the hurricane season. The strongest, Hurricane Joaquin, maxed out as a Category 4 storm and brushed the coastal Carolinas in early October, causing flooding in the Cape Fear region.

This year, there have already been two named storms, including a rare January depression that became Hurricane Alex, a Category 1 storm in the eastern Atlantic near the Azores. This past weekend, a storm developed off the coast of South Carolina and became Tropical Storm Bonnie, but weakened and stalled on Sunday as it made landfall between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

According to Reid Hawkins, science officer at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, two preseason named storms, especially the rare winter one, have no bearing on what kind of activity we can expect this summer. What does affect it, he said, are climate patterns.

“We’re going from El Niño to La Niña,” Hawkins said, referencing two weather phenomena that relate to the warming (El Niño) and cooling (La Niña) of temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. “We’re currently in a middle pattern, so we’re transitioning, which can make it a little unpredictable.”

Though those two events are located in the Pacific, they have the ability to affect patterns around the world, including on the eastern half of the United States.

In the Atlantic, weather scientists are monitoring a similar ocean temperature pattern, called the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, or AMO. One phase of the pattern results in warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures and stronger monsoons in West Africa, meaning a greater chance of storms developing. The opposite pattern results in cooler ocean temperatures, making it harder for storms to form and strengthen. According to scientists, we have been in the warm phase of the AMO since at least the 1990s.

“From 1995 until now, we’ve had a higher number of storms due to the warm phase of the AMO,” Hawkins said. “But based on the below average activity in the last few years, we might be seeing a shift toward cooler temperatures. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have a near normal prediction. We would probably hedge toward above average.”

Hawkins said this phenoma is still being studied and researched, and it is unclear where we are in the AMO cycle or how it may affect this and upcoming hurricane seasons.

“We’ve never monitored a complete cycle of this,” Hawkins said, noting that activity cycles, whether or high or low, usually last between 25 to 40 years. “We’ve only been able to notice it and monitor it since the satellite era.”

While it’s impossible to know exactly how many storms will develop in the Atlantic this season and if and when any of them will directly affect southeastern North Carolina, weather experts and emergency management personnel encourage citizens to be ready at all times. This includes having an evacuation plan, emergency supplies, proper insurance, a list of contacts and means of communication and a way to get the most up-to-date information.

For more on hurricane preparedness, visit www.ready.gov/hurricanes.