It's been 12 years since a major hurricane made landfall in the U.S., but the streak may come to an end this summer.
The National Hurricane Center on Thursday predicted an "above-normal" season, which starts June 1 and runs through November.
Officials forecast 11 to 17 named storms, of which five to nine will strengthen to hurricanes. Meteorologists expect two to four of those to become "major" storms of Category 3 or higher.
"There is a potential for a lot of Atlantic storm activity this year," said Ben Friedman, acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In fact, though the season doesn't officially start until June, the Atlantic has already produced one tropical storm — Arlene — which formed in April. The next systems will be named Bret, Cindy and Don.
An average season produces 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. While the U.S. has been hammered by "minor" storms — such as Sandy in 2012 and Matthew last year — no Category 3 or above has made landfall in the country since Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. That was just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana in August as a Category 3 storm, devastating New Orleans.
"It's been a record-breaking 12 years," Friedman remarked in a teleconference with reporters.
Activity in the Atlantic ticked up last year, producing 15 named storms.
In 2017, meteorologists expect several factors to coalesce and contribute to a tumultuous season. A weak or non-existent El Niño effect, average or warm sea temperatures and weak wind shear may all drive hurricane activity, the Hurricane Center wrote in a news release.
How many of hurricanes will make landfall and where they might strike is impossible to predict at this stage, a federal meteorologist said.
“We don't forecast how many storms might make landfall, because this far in advance, we really can't predict what atmospheric conditions will be in place to steer the individual storms," said NOAA lead seasonal hurricane forecaster Gerry Bell in a recorded statement.
Colorado State University, which has long prepared its own seasonal forecast, has given a 42 percent chance of a major hurricane striking the coast and a 24 percent of one making landfall between Tampa, Florida, and the Rio Grande
The NOAA’s prediction for this hurricane season differs from the April report by the Colorado State University, which predicted 11 named storms, four hurricanes and two major events.
The two groups disagreed on the potential El Niño effect. El Niño whips up Atlantic winds that disperse cyclones, especially later in the season. While the National Hurricane Center doesn't expect to see much of an effect in 2017, Colorado State left open the possibility that it could influence storm formation.
This year was challenging to predict, the Hurricane Center noted.
"The climate models are showing considerable uncertainty," which has led them to conclude that while 2017 is most likely to be above-average, there's also a 35 percent chance of a more typical year and a 20 percent chance of a below-average season, officials said.
Regardless of the final number, the Federal Emergency Management Agency joined the meteorologists Thursday to implore residents to begin preparing a disaster plan.
"It really only takes one storm," to cause tumult, said acting FEMA administrator Robert Fenton.
The National Weather Service is rolling out new equipment and procedures this year to better predict catastrophic storms and warn people in harm's way.
GOES-16, a sophisticated weather satellite, was put in orbit last November and will be fully operational later this year. From 22,300 miles above the equator, it will be able to monitor the entire continental U.S., and Friedman said it has a higher resolution and faster scanning ability than any other equipment currently in use.
He called particular attention to its ability to track "lightning in the clouds like we've never seen before." Officials said that information can be used to predict which tropical storm systems may be gathering strength.
The Hurricane Center has also made improvements to its computer models, which they hope will help them better predict a storm's track and intensity.
If and when storms systems approach the shore this year, the weather service will also issue new watches and warnings specifically to alert residents to damage caused by storm surges. A surge occurs when a storm pushes water from the sea onto land. In Louisiana, even inland areas are vulnerable. According to National Weather Service data, a category three storm that strikes the cost at just the right angle could force water over much of southern East Baton Rouge Parish.
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