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GOM Boarding Up Ahead of Possible Visit by Isaac

The 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which has so far been relatively mild, may be about to intensify, according to Weather Services International (WSI), which last week increased its forecast to 14 named storms, including seven hurricanes, three of them major (Category 3 or higher). Tropical Storm Isaac, the ninth named storm of the season, on Friday seemed poised to prove WSI's point.

Isaac appeared to be altering its course on Friday and could be moving closer to the central GOM by Monday and Tuesday than previously expected -- and have grown to hurricane status by then -- prompting some companies to suspend drilling operations and evacuate workers from some platforms.

At midday Friday Royal Dutch Shell plc's U.S. operation was preparing for evacuations of nonessential personnel in the eastern and central GOM.

"These personnel are not essential to core producing and drilling operations and will not be able to perform their normal work functions during the passing storm conditions," Shell said. "Drilling operations have been suspended on some eastern and central assets. No production has been impacted."

At about the same time, BP plc said it was shutting production and evacuating all workers from its Thunder Horse oil and gas platform in the Mississippi Canyon area south of Louisiana, and evacuating nonessential workers from the Na Kika, Horn Mountain and Marlin platforms, according to a Reuter's report. Nearly 300 people work on Thunder Horse, which is the largest deepwater production unit in the world, with capacity to process up to 200 MMcf/d of gas and 250,000 b/d of oil.

Chevron began evacuating nonessential personnel from some of its offshore facilities in the Gulf Friday afternoon.

"Production has not been affected," Chevron said. "At our onshore facilities, we are following our storm preparedness procedures and paying close attention to the track and forecast of the storm."

Apache Corp. said it was evacuating nonessential personnel in the eastern GOM "as a precautionary measure." Anadarko Petroleum Corp. said it was monitoring conditions and was "prepared to safely remove our workers and shut in production to protect the environment if Tropical Storm Isaac begins to track toward our facilities."

Among the events potentially threatened by Isaac is the Republican National Convention, which is scheduled to be held in Tampa, FL, beginning Monday through Thursday (Aug. 27-30).

WSI's latest tropical forecast is a slight increase from July, when it said it expected 13 named storms in the Atlantic Basin this year, including six hurricanes, three of them major (see NGI, July 30). Prior to the June 1 open of the hurricane season WSI issued an 11/six/two forecast, which it has nudged higher several times (see NGI, July 2; May 28).

If WSI's latest forecast numbers are accurate, the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season would nearly match the 1950-2011 average of 12 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes and would come in under the 1995-2011 average of 15/eight/four, but it would produce significantly less tropical activity than was observed in 2010 or 2011.

Warming ocean waters in the northern Atlantic waters, which can help produce tropical cyclones, prompted the higher numbers of forecast storms, according to WSI Chief Meteorologist Todd Crawford.

"We have already had eight named storms and three hurricanes, and there is still about two-thirds of the season remaining. During recent emerging El Nino events, six to nine named storms and three to five hurricanes have formed after mid-August. This data, along with similar guidance from our statistical models have led us to increase our numbers again," Crawford said.

"One of the main drivers of this forecast increase is the continued warming of the North Atlantic, where ocean temperatures are now approaching those observed in the more active seasons in recent years. This extra 'fuel' will be offset by the emerging El Nino event, which will provide a less favorable environment for storm development as the season progresses."

The first two months of the hurricane season have left energy interests in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) unscathed, but the rest of the season may not be so generous, Crawford said.

"The current, cooler pattern in the eastern half of the country is more favorable for storms recurving out into the Atlantic or impacting the East Coast. However, as we head into September, we expect the evolving large-scale pattern to favor more southward-tracking storms and a greater Gulf threat. As a whole, for 2012, the current forecast from our landfall model depicts slightly below-normal probabilities of landfall from Florida and up the East Coast, with slightly above-normal probabilities in the Gulf."

The Atlantic hurricane season, which officially runs until Nov. 30, got off to an early start this year with the formation of Tropical Storms Alberto and Beryl in May. The season's third named system, Chris, formed southeast of the Canadian Maritimes June 19 and, despite becoming the season's first hurricane for a few hours on June 21, never threatened the North American mainland. Debby, the fourth named storm of the 2012 season, formed near the Yucatan Peninsula June 23, forcing offshore GOM oil and gas operators to evacuate workers from platforms and shut in production temporarily.

Ernesto, which formed Aug. 2 and also briefly reached hurricane status, dumped heavy rain on central Mexico after skirting the far southern GOM. The season's sixth named storm, Florence, petered out north of Puerto Rico earlier this month. Tropical Storm Helena followed a path similar to Ernesto, degenerating into a broad area of low pressure about 85 miles west-northwest of Tampico, Mexico, last weekend. And Gordon, the 2012 season's third hurricane, took an alternative route, forming several hundred miles east of Bermuda on August 15 and moving steadily away from North America before dispersing near the Azores on Monday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently raised its tropical forecast to a total of 12-17 named storms, including five-eight hurricanes, two-three of them major (see NGI, Aug. 13), and forecasters at Colorado State University have said that they expect a total of 14 named storms in the Atlantic Basin this year, including six hurricanes, two of them major, a slight increase from activity they predicted at the beginning of the 2012 hurricane season.

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