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WSI: Calm Hurricane Season, Warm Autumn Ahead

Despite the recent appearance of the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season's first four named storms, Andover, MA-based WSI Corp. said it is sticking with its previous forecast of a total of 10 named storms, including five hurricanes, with two of them intense (Category Three or greater) forming by Nov. 30. Temperatures across most of the country during the next three months will be warmer than normal, WSI said.

In its initial hurricane forecast for the 2009 season WSI had predicted 13 named storms, three of them intense (see NGI, Jan. 5). But a continuation of relatively cool tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures, combined with unusually cold temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific and normal to above-normal wind shear in the tropical Atlantic, prompted the forecaster in April to reduce those numbers to 11 named storms, including six hurricanes, with two of them intense (see NGI, April 27). In July a wind shear environment unfavorable to hurricane development across the tropical Atlantic, which was being driven by a recently developed El Nino event, prompted WSI to further reduce the number of hurricanes in its forecast (see NGI, July 27).

El Nino -- the warming of surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific ocean, which can influence the formation of Atlantic hurricanes -- arrived at the end of June, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists (see NGI, July 13). El Nino events, which occur every two to five years and typically last about 12 months, can help suppress Atlantic hurricane activity.

WSI said it was reiterating the hurricane numbers first forecast in July because there have been no significant changes in the current El Nino event. The number of tropical storms forecast by WSI would be fewer than occurred during the 2008 season, when a total of 16 named storms, including eight hurricanes, five of them intense, formed in the Atlantic. But it would be about the same as an average hurricane season, which has 11 named storms, including two major hurricanes, according to NOAA.

"Ocean temperatures in the tropical Atlantic have warmed up considerably during the past month, but this warming likely represents only a shallow surface layer and probably isn't indicative of any substantial increase in total available energy," said WSI seasonal forecaster Todd Crawford. "On the other hand, the El Nino event has not yet created a particularly destructive wind shear environment across the tropical Atlantic yet, and the strength of the event itself has flattened out at relatively weak levels in recent weeks. Our current forecast of 10 named storms certainly seems well within reach at this point."

Colorado State University (CSU) forecasters recently said they expect Atlantic tropical storm activity to be "at above-average levels" through Sept. 4. Due largely to the development of the current El Nino event, the CSU team reduced its tropical storm forecast for 2009 to 10 named storms, including four hurricanes, two of them intense.

Earlier this month NOAA said the quiet start to the hurricane season did not guarantee that the next four months will remain calm (see NGI, Aug. 10). NOAA expects that the Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, will see near- to below-normal activity, with the calming effects of El Nino continuing to develop. But despite the calm experienced in June and July, the historical peak months of the hurricane season -- August to October -- could still produce major storms, according to NOAA.

NOAA is predicting fewer storms, with a 70% chance of seven to 11 named storms, three to six of them hurricanes, including just one or two major hurricanes. Forecasters, including WSI, have said a new El Nino event, combined with cooler Atlantic ocean temperatures, is likely to make the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season "relatively quiet." AccuWeather.com Chief Long Range Forecaster Joe Bastardi has also forecast a mild hurricane season (see NGI, May 18).

The 2009 season's first hurricane, Bill, reached Category Four status for a short time while it was still at sea south of Bermuda. The storm caused rough seas and unusually high tides along much of the East Coast but did not make landfall until it passed over southeastern Newfoundland early on Aug. 24.

The next three months will bring warmer-than-normal temperatures to much of the country and portions of the West may be especially warm, with only the Southeast expected to stay cooler than normal through November, according to WSI's seasonal forecast.

"The pattern that resulted in a record cold July in many eastern U.S. locations has finally abated," Crawford said. "We expect the warmer pattern to continue in September, with the exception of the Southeast, where conditions will likely be cooler and wetter than normal. By October and November, the impacts from the current El Nino event will begin to take hold with increased chances of cold temperatures across much of the eastern U.S."

In its Energycast Outlook for September WSI forecast warmer-than-normal temperatures to dominate all of the country except the Southeast, where cooler-than-normal temperatures were expected. Those warmer temperatures should drive natural gas demand higher during the month, according to Energy Security Analysis Inc. (ESAI) analyst Chris Kostas.

"Continued slack industrial demand, however, and the seasonally cooler temperatures of September should offset the marginal effects of these warm temperatures," Kostas said in a statement issued in conjunction with WSI's outlook. "Barring any significant hurricane disruptions, natural gas prices will remain depressed in September and inventories should approach the previous record of 3,545 Bcf set Nov. 2, 2007, by the end of the month."

WSI forecast cooler-than-normal temperatures moving into the Great Lakes region in October, with warmer-than-normal temperatures remaining in the Northeast, West and South Central regions. West Texas and areas west of the Rockies can expect much warmer-than-normal temperatures. October will probably be "neutral" on demand, Kostas said.

"We expect cash prices at Henry Hub will likely trade with a two-handle for a large portion of the month with price-induced shut-ins of production and gas-on-coal competition balancing the supply/demand equation. Shoulder-season dynamics and generator maintenance should overshadow weather variations in October, as lower demand for gas and power means less dependence on weather," Kostas said.

The cooling trend will continue to spread in November, with cooler-than-normal temperatures moving into the Northeast and South Central regions during the month, WSI said. The relatively cool forecast will boost demand significantly from October's depressed shoulder-month levels, while continuing warmer-than-normal weather in the West will reduce regional seasonal heating demand slightly, according to ESAI.

"On balance, November should be bullish from a weather-related perspective. Power prices in November should be supported by firmer spot gas prices and firmer peak loads," Kostas said.

Looking further ahead, Crawford said the current El Nino event will also play a part in weather patterns this winter.

"The pattern for the upcoming winter will depend strongly on the evolution of this El Nino event during the next few months. A weaker event centered farther east in the tropical Pacific will more likely enable a cold winter in much of the eastern U.S., while a stronger and more west-centered event would increase the odds of a very mild winter in the Northeast. We currently favor slightly the former, colder idea, but with very high uncertainty at this point."

The WSI seasonal outlooks reference a standard 30-year norm (1971-2000). The next forecast, for October-January, is scheduled to be issued Sept. 23.

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