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TROPICS: NOAA issues 2012 hurricane outlook

Posted at 1:01 PM, May 24, 2012
and last updated 2012-05-24 13:46:53-04

RICHMOND, Va, (WTVR) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its 2012 Atlantic Basin hurricane outlook for tropical activity in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.  Tropical meteorologists at NOAA's National Hurricane Center (NHC) expect a near-normal season, with nine to 15 named storms (39 mph+ winds), of which four to eight may become hurricanes (74 mph+ winds), and of those, one to three may reach major hurricane intensity (111 mph+ winds of Category 3 strength and higher). The Atlantic hurricane season runs for six months from June 1 to November 30. The announcement was made from Miami, Florida at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, the home to the Hurricane Research Division.

For the first time on record, both the East Pacific and Atlantic basins produced named systems prior to the start of their respective hurricane seasons. In the East Pacific, Tropical Storm Aletta developed one day early on May 14, jump-starting the May 15 official beginning of that basin's tropical season. In the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Alberto developed May 19, nearly two weeks before the official June 1 beginning of the tropical season in this basin. Another record was broken with the development of Tropical Storm Bud in the East Pacific this week, marking the first time on record that two named storms have formed this early in the season in that basin. Bud reached hurricane strength May 23, 2012, and is expected to impact west-central Mexico.

Factors that went into this forecast include the current long-term heightened pattern of tropical activity in the Atlantic basin since 1995, where 12 of the seasons since then have experienced above-normal activity. Sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Atlantic are also warm and on-track to be favorable for tropical development. Finally, wind shear in the basin is also limited, except by short-term weather patterns like transient troughs. Tropical systems require warm sea surface temperatures (80 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer), limited wind shear (so that the storms can organize and circulate without being ripped apart by different wind speeds and directions at different altitudes), and often a "triggering" disturbance (like an east African upper-level wave or a coastal low pressure system).

There is one wild card factor that may inhibit tropical development later in the Summer. Although ENSO-neutral conditions currently exist in the equatorial Pacific after La Niña from Summer 2011 through April 2012, some long-range climate models indicate the development of El Niño toward the end of this Summer. If that does indeed develop, then El Niño is a pattern that creates more wind shear and disrupts the organization of tropical cyclones. That would suppress storm strength, and thus, lead to a less active end-of-season. In case you're wondering, here's what an "average" season looks like:

Based on the period 1981-2010, an average season produces 12 named storms with six hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.


Despite these new records of early tropical activity, tropical meteorologist Dr. Gerry Bell, lead hurricane season forecaster with NOAA's CPC, is quick to point out that an early start to the season is not a sign of a continued active tropical year. And even relatively "quiet" years should not be ignored. Dr. Bell used 1992 as an example of "it just takes one" to make for a devastating tropical season. In 1992, there were six named topical cyclones in the Atlantic Basin, but one of them became Category 5 Hurricane Andrew. "Be prepared," is the message Dr. Bell gave today when issuing a "near-normal" season forecast.

Language reverberating from NOAA to FEMA to the Red Cross today included phrases like "There's no such thing as 'just a' tropical storm," and "There's no such thing as 'a weak' hurricane." This is in response to last year's Hurricane Irene and its significant impact on the East Coast. Some people felt unprepared for the impacts, especially in New England, from the storm, even though the threats were communicated to the public. This year, language will strive to better-convey the impacts to individuals from storms. For example, New England experienced historic flooding from the remnants of Irene, in part because of recent saturated soil from previous non-tropical storm systems impacting that region prior to Irene's arrival with both heavy rainfall and strong winds.

Being prepared today includes planning ahead before the threat of a storm.  Often states choose to provide a sales tax holiday on qualifying items necessary for hurricane preparedness. Virginia will also take part in its own sales tax reprieve May 25 through 31, 2012.
CLICK HERE for more about our Virginia Sales Tax Holiday.

In addition, National Hurricane Preparedness Week will run May 27 through June 2, 2012, overlapping some of Virginia's Sales Tax Holiday. The National Weather Service (NWS) designated that week in order "to highlight the importance of planning ahead to protect families and to secure homes and properties in advance of the upcoming hurricane season." Each day in the week will feature a different topic pertaining to preparedness or hazards.

May 27: Hurricane Basics

May 28: Storm Surge

May 29: Wind

May 30: Inland Flooding

May 31: Forecast Process

June 1: Get a Plan

June 2: Take Action

CLICK HERE for more on National Hurricane Preparedness Week.

CLICK HERE to learn more about how hurricanes are categorized using the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

This year will be special for Virginia because of research expected to occur in September from NASA's Wallops Flight Test Facility as NOAA and NASA work together to launch unmanned drones from Virginia's Wallops Island to fly above tropical systems. These drones will mimic the data gathered by current hurricane hunter aircraft, which fly in and out of systems at various altitudes. These small drones, however, can look down into the storm from above it and gather similar information using dropsonde technology, doppler radar scanning, and radiometers. The first drone is expected to arrive from California to Virginia in early September for test flights, with the second by mid-September.

In addition to the Virginia drones and continued use of hurricane hunter fly-throughs, this is the first year that small robotic boats will also be deployed to sea to take measurements at the ocean surface. With these three tools this year, tropical meteorologists hope to end 2012, whatever it may bring, with a better understanding of how tropical cyclones form, live, and eventually deteriorate or transition.

Stay with CBS 6, we'll keep you ahead of the storm this year!

Meteorologist Carrie Rose
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