NOAA predicts 2016 hurricane season to be most active since 2012

awilliams@dailypress.com

Despite a slow start, experts are expecting hurricane season could still be a bit turbulent.

Forecasters at the NOAA Climate Prediction Center announced Thursday that this year’s Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be the most active since 2012, which was the year Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast.

In its 2016 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook, NOAA predicts a 70 percent chance of 12 to 17 tropical storms, up from the initial prediction of 10 to 16 announced in May. The updated report, which comes at the start of peak hurricane season, expects five to eight of those to reach hurricane status, with two to four being major hurricanes.

The last hurricane to pass Hampton Roads was Sandy in 2012, one of 10 total that year. The 2012 season overall had above-average activity with 19 tropical storms, seven higher than is typical.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Jeff Orrock said Hampton Road hasn’t really seen hurricane conditions in 13 years.

“Irene was a little bit worse than Sandy, but that was still just a glancing blow,” Orrock said. “The last time we had anything close to hurricane force winds was Hurricane Isabel in 2003.”

Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said, “We’ve raised the numbers because some conditions now in place are indicative of a more active hurricane season, such as El Niño ending, weaker vertical wind shear and weaker trade winds over the central tropical Atlantic, and a stronger west African monsoon.”

El Niño, which keeps Pacific Ocean temperatures warmer than usual, counters hurricane formation in the Atlantic because it encourages sharp wind change — called wind shear — higher in the atmosphere over the Atlantic, according to Orrock at the NWS.

Orrock said the stronger West African monsoon means an increasing number of tropical waves coming off of the African coast into the Atlantic that could help develop tropical systems. That, combined with the end of El Niño, was why he speculated NOAA upped its hurricane predictions.

“Usually early in the season you see more systems forming closer to the continental U.S.,” Orrock said. “The reason we probably haven’t seen that this year is that wind conditions haven’t been favorable for tropical storm formation.”

Some of those conditions are still present, such as strong wind shear conditions over the Caribbean Sea that could work to counter the more favorable hurricane-forming weather farther out.

Orrock said while the outlook may favor the development of tropical storms, it depends on current climate conditions in the Atlantic as to whether the storm would hit the U.S. or not.

When storms come in from the Atlantic, there are two paths they can take — either target the Gulf of Mexico or curve back up the U.S. East Coast — and it’s hard to predict where a storm will land until it forms, Orrock said.

“It’s a little bit of the luck of the draw of what the weather pattern is looking like over the mid-Atlantic,” Orrock said. “Historically, more hurricanes do pass with 100 miles of Cape Hatteras than anywhere else in the U.S. Climatologically, we are near a hot spot.”

Even if it does curve up the coast, a storm could just pass by Hampton Roads entirely. 

As the season enters its peak from mid-August to mid-October, Kate Hale, emergency manager for James City County, said people should have a plan for any kind of tropical storm, not just hurricanes.

“We really caution people to be prepared regardless of what projections are for any given season,” Hale said. “It only takes one.”

Hale said people should keep in mind that lesser storms still cause damage like downed trees and power lines. She said storms of any magnitude often involve wind and rain, and could lead to flooding.

William Powell, a FEMA spokesman, said people should stay tuned to local information and stay up-to-date about storm movements. He said being prepared includes a plan and a disaster supply kit with a weather radio, flashlight and batteries, extra food and water and any personal supplies such as medicine or pet supplies.

So far in 2016, five Atlantic storms have been strong enough to warrant naming, including two hurricanes, according to NOAA. No hurricanes have made landfall on U.S. soil yet, but Tropical Storm Bonnie did hit South Carolina during Memorial Day Weekend.

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