A New Hurricane Forecast: No Reason for Reassurance

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CLAUDIA DAUT / REUTERS

Palm trees in Cuba are shaken by the winds of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The NOAA's forecast predicts that eight to 10 of the storms next year will be classified as hurricanes.

The 2006 Atlantic Hurricane Season formally begins on June 1, which means it's time for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to issue its annual forecast. It's not promising: the next six months should be "very active" — which translates to a prediction of 13-15 tropical storms significant enough to be named. Eight to 10 of them should become full-fledged hurricanes, and four to six of these should be major hurricanes.

All of these figures are significantly above the historical average. And yet they qualify as a relief compared to last year's awful season. With 28 named storms, 15 hurricanes and seven qualifying as major — including a record four Category 5's, the most powerful. But then, last season wasn't predicted to be as bad as it turned out, so there's little reason to be reassured. Hurricane experts believe we entered a period of increased hurricane threat back in 1995, with atmospheric conditions that combine for a sort of perfect storm, as it were, of hurricane-favoring conditions. Among them:

—warmer than average sea-surface temperatures in the North Atlantic, which pumps heat energy into storms and makes them stronger

—less wind shear — that is, fewer winds blowing across the path of hurricanes, which tend to disrupt their formation and growth

—stronger easterly winds in the upper atmosphere, which encourage storms that form over west Africa to travel across the Atlantic toward the Americas.

What the forecasters can't predict at all is where the track of these storms might lead. Some of them undoubtedly won't make landfall at all, and the ones that do could strike almost anywhere from Massachusetts down to Mexico. With the increase in population in most coastal areas, there will be that much greater potential for death and destruction. With any luck, the lessons of Katrina will at least make evacuations more timely and orderly. But anyone who lives on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast of North America, or on islands in the Caribbean, should begin thinking now about how to deal with a catastrophic storm if it should barrel their way. And emergency management officials would do to go over their disaster plans very, very meticulously.