The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted Friday the 2016 hurricane season will be near normal, but reaching that conclusion was more challenging for federal scientists than usual.
The forecast calls for the development of 10 to 16 named storms, four to eight of which could become hurricanes, with one to four of those storms reaching wind speeds of 111 mph or greater — Category 3, 4 or 5.
The average is 12 named storms a year, including six hurricanes and three major hurricanes that are Category 3 or greater.
“While near normal may sound OK and relaxed ... we could be in for more activity than we’ve seen in the last few years,” said Kathryn Sullivan, the NOAA administrator.
Preparations for the season need to start now, she said.
Sullivan added that there are a number of factors that are still evolving that could result in more or fewer storms during the season. That uncertainty is the cause for a lower than usual confidence level attached to the forecast.
The 2016 forecast comes with only a 45 percent confidence level, well below what NOAA hurricane forecasts usually contain. The forecast also states there is a 30 percent chance for the season to be above normal or 25 percent chance to be below normal.
“This year, there are strong variables in several climate factors that go into forecasting,” Sullivan said.
One factor is the weakening of the El Niño weather condition that is expected to transition to a La Niña condition by the peak of hurricane season in August and September.
El Niño and its counterpart La Niña are part of a cycle of changing water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects weather patterns across the country.
For the Atlantic hurricane season, an El Niño generally means stronger wind shear in areas where hurricanes develop, which can hamper the ability of storms to form or strengthen. With a La Niña, those winds generally die down and make conditions more favorable for storm development.
Sullivan said forecasters aren’t sure what effect this year’s La Niña could have, adding to the uncertainty.
In addition, the Atlantic Ocean basin could be starting to transition into a colder phase, which would cause fewer hurricanes to develop. The warming and cooling of Atlantic Ocean temperatures tends to last between 25 and 40 years. The current warm cycle began in 1995 following a cooler cycle from 1971 to 1994, during which there were only two above-normal seasons, said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
It could take some time to determine if the multidecade warm Atlantic Ocean trend is coming to an end after 21 years or if it’s just a result of year-to-year temperature variations, Bell said.
Sullivan said this is the first time NOAA has been able to study a possible transition with more sophisticated equipment, making an exact prediction difficult.
“It really is a powerhouse for controlling the activity of hurricane seasons for decades at a time,” Bell said.
Sullivan said current conditions are set up for more storms to form than in recent years.
The 2016 season is off to an early start, with the first named storm forming in January. Hurricane Alex stayed out to sea in the northern Atlantic Ocean. In addition, residents along the East Coast were watching a new threat Friday.
A low-pressure system along the southeast Atlantic coast was getting better organized Friday afternoon, and chances were high that a tropical storm could form Friday night or Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Residents from Georgia to North Carolina were being asked to monitor the progress closely. The storm is not expected to affect Louisiana.
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