September 1, 2006

Noted U.S. team cuts hurricane forecast for Atlantic

By Michael Christie

MIAMI (Reuters) - The number of hurricanes churning through
the Caribbean toward the United States this year is likely to
be less than once feared and may even be less than normal, a
noted U.S. hurricane research team said on Friday.

The Colorado State University team formed by pioneer
forecaster William Gray cut its forecast for the Atlantic
hurricane season for a second time and predicted there would be
13 tropical storms with five of them becoming hurricanes.

The new reduction reflected a widespread trend among
experts to cut their expectations for 2006 to well below the
record number of storms last year -- bringing some relief to
millions of American coastal dwellers.

One factor leading to the revisions are indications the El
Nino weather phenomenon may take shape in the Pacific in the
autumn. El Nino conditions, an unusual warming of Pacific
waters, suppress hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

Another factor was a high level of West African dust over
the Atlantic, Colorado State University researcher Philip
Klotzbach and Gray said in a statement.

"Current conditions in the Atlantic indicate that we will
now see a slightly below-average hurricane season with far less
activity than was experienced in each of the last two years,"
Klotzbach said.

In May, the Colorado State University team had predicted
the 2006 season would bring 17 storms and that nine would
become hurricanes, with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph). It
revised the forecast in August to 15 storms and 7 hurricanes.

Even its latest storm forecast remained above the long-term
average of 9.6 storms per six-month season, which began on June
1. But its hurricane prediction was below the average of six
per season.


The 2005 season distorted all expectations, with a record
28 storms forming in the Atlantic.

Fifteen of the storms went on to become hurricanes,
including Katrina, which devastated the historic jazz city of
New Orleans, killed 1,500 people along the Gulf Coast and
became the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history,
with $80 billion in damages. Hurricane Wilma at one point was
the most powerful Atlantic storm ever observed.

The 2004 season was also unusual. Four successive
hurricanes plowed through Florida.

The heightened storm activity triggered fierce debate
between climatologists, who suspect global warming is coming
into play, and U.S. hurricane experts, who blame a natural
multi-year shift in climatic conditions in the Atlantic.

So far this year there have been only five named Atlantic
storms, of which one, Ernesto, briefly became a hurricane near

Ernesto came ashore in North Carolina on Thursday night and
torrential rain was expected to cause flooding throughout the
mid-Atlantic states on Friday and Saturday.

The Colorado State University researchers said two of the
five expected hurricanes were likely to be intense hurricanes
of Category 3 and above on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale
of storm intensity.

Both of the major hurricanes forecast by Gray's researchers
were expected to occur in September.

"Despite the lower predictions, residents living along the
U.S. coastline should always be prepared for major storms,"
Gray said.