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Quiet Atlantic Hurricane Season to Follow Record Winter Warmth

The 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially begins June 1, will have "reduced activity" compared with 1981-2010 averages, according to forecasters at Colorado State University (CSU). A quiet hurricane season could provide some solace to the nation's energy interests, which saw relatively warm weather crush demand and prices last winter.

The CSU forecast team expects 10 named storms in the Atlantic Basin this year, including four hurricanes, two of them major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher). The 30-year average is 12 named storms, including 6.5 hurricanes, two of them major hurricanes.

"The tropical Atlantic has anomalously cooled over the past several months, and it appears that the chances of an El Nino event this summer and fall are relatively high," the CSU team said. "We anticipate a below-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the United States coastline and in the Caribbean."

There is a 24% probability of a major hurricane making landfall on the Gulf Coast from the Florida panhandle west to Brownsville, TX; a 24% probability of a major hurricane making landfall on the East coast; and a 42% probability of major hurricane coming ashore anywhere on the U.S. coastline -- all below the average over the last century -- the forecasters said. The probability of at least one major hurricane entering the Caribbean is 34%, compared to 42% for the last century.

In a long-range forecast issued in December, the CSU team said it expected an above-average Atlantic hurricane season in 2012, with conditions that would typically create 12-15 named storms, including seven to nine hurricanes, with three to four of them major hurricanes (see NGI, Dec. 12, 2011).

Forecasters at WSI Corp. have said that changing water temperatures in both the South Pacific and North Atlantic oceans could produce a relatively tame hurricane season this year (see NGI, Jan. 2). WSI forecasters said they expect 12 named storms, including seven hurricanes, three of them intense hurricanes. Those numbers fall between the long-term (1950-2011) averages of 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two intense hurricanes, and the averages from the more active recent period (1995-2011) of 15/8/4.

Last month was the warmest March on record in the contiguous United States, and relatively warm temperatures across the country made January through March 2012 the warmest first quarter since records were first kept in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).

The average temperature during the first three months of 2012 was 42 degrees, a full six degrees above the long-term average, NCDC said. It was the warmest first quarter on record for 25 states -- all of them east of the Rockies -- and 16 others experienced first-quarter temperatures ranking among their ten warmest ever. None of the Lower 48 states had below-average first quarter temperatures. Alaska, on the other hand, had its ninth coolest first quarter, recording temperatures 5.2 degrees below average.

The average temperature in the contiguous United States was 51.1 degrees in March, 8.6 degrees above the 20th century average for March and 0.5 degree warmer than the previous warmest March in 1910. In the 117 years since the United States began documenting climate records, only January 2006 has seen a larger departure from average temperatures, NCDC said.

Every state experienced at least one record warm daily temperature in March, and a total of 15,272 warm temperature records were set at locations across the country. Washington, Oregon and California experienced cooler-than-average conditions, but 25 other states had their warmest March ever.

"There were 21 instances of the nighttime temperatures being as warm, or warmer, than the existing record daytime temperature for a given date," NCDC said.

Weather analysts at MDA EarthSat recently said last month was the warmest March since 1950 based on natural gas-weighted heating degree days (GWHDD), averaging 38% less GWHDD than the 30-year normal and 37.5% less than the 10-year normal (see NGI, April 9). It was the warmest March ever in cities across the country, according to AccuWeather.com, with records for high average temperatures set from Portland, ME (41.2 degrees), to Tampa, FL (74.4 degrees), and from Washington, DC (56.8 degrees), to Burlington, CO (49.5 degrees).

Mild temperatures dominated much of the country this winter, including the fourth-warmest January on record for the contiguous United States, according to AccuWeather.com (see NGI, Feb. 13).

Warm winter weather helped lower natural gas prices and flatten sales in 4Q2011, according to NGI's 4Q2011 Top North American Gas Marketers Ranking (see NGI, March 26a).

The front-month natural gas futures contract is currently threatening to break below $2.00/MMBtu for the first time in more than 10 years. The last time values traded lower than the current level was in January 2002. Thanks to a warmer-than-usual winter and continuing strong shale development, gas storage is bulging at the seams. At the end of March, the official close of the winter heating season, working inventories totaled 2,479 Bcf, 887 Bcf more than last year's level and 934 Bcf above the five-year average, the Energy Information Administration said last week (see related story). In the last two decades, end-of-March inventories have not risen over 1,700 Bcf, and prior to that, rose above 2,100 Bcf only once, in 1983, EIA said.

WSI Corp. recently said it expects April temperatures to average warmer than normal in the Northeast, North Central, South Central and Southwest (except coastal Southern California), with cooler-than-normal temperatures dominating in the Southeast and Northwest (see NGI, March 26b).

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