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NOAA Forecasts 'Near-Normal' Hurricane Season; Offshore Prepares

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Thursday forecast a "near-normal" Atlantic hurricane season this year, but the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and offshore operators are preparing for all possibilities.

In its initial outlook for the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November, NOAA's National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center (CPC) called for a 50% probability of a near-normal season. There's a quarter chance the upcoming season will be above- or below-normal, the CPC said.

Global weather patterns, said forecasters, "are imposing a greater uncertainty in the 2009 hurricane season outlook than in recent years." Forecasters are calling for a 70% chance of having nine to 14 named storms, with four to seven of those becoming hurricanes. One to three major hurricanes -- Category 3, 4, or 5 -- are expected.

"This outlook is a guide to the overall expected seasonal activity," said CPC's Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster. "However, the outlook is not just about the numbers, it's also about taking action...Even a near- or below-normal season can produce landfalling hurricanes, and it only takes one landfalling storm to make it a bad season."

Shaping this seasonal outlook is the possibility of competing climate factors, the CPC noted. Supporting more activity this season are conditions associated with the ongoing high-activity era that began in 1995, which include enhanced rainfall over West Africa, warmer Atlantic waters and reduced wind shear. However, activity could be reduced if El Nino develops in the equatorial Eastern Pacific this summer or if ocean temperatures in the eastern tropical Atlantic remain cooler than normal, the federal agency said.

The first tropical storm in 2009 with sustained winds of at least 39 mph will be named "Ana," NOAA said. Tropical storms become hurricanes when winds reach 74 mph and become major hurricanes when winds increase to 111 mph. An average season has 11 named storms, including six hurricanes with two becoming major hurricanes.

NOAA plans to issue an updated hurricane outlook in early August, just prior to what is historically the peak period for hurricane activity.

In 2005, more than 100 oil and gas platforms were downed and 19 mobile drilling rigs were set adrift in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) by the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Hurricanes Ike and Gustav last year destroyed 60 platforms in the GOM; two mobile rigs were set adrift The lessons learned over the past four years have begun to pay off, MMS officials said Tuesday.

"I would characterize this year's preparations as building on improvements and lessons learned from the 2005 and 2008 seasons," said Lars Herbst, director of the MMS GOM region.

Additional safety measures were put in place by MMS following the 2005 hurricane season, which included additional mooring lines to secure offshore drilling rigs to the seafloor (see Daily GPI, May 31, 2007). Other rules now require some facilities to be raised higher out of the water.

The MMS also recommended that operators install multiple global positioning systems on mobile offshore drilling units to help track them in a storm. And the agency is studying how vulnerable shallow water jack-up drilling rigs are to hurricane damage, which may lead to more rules or recommendations in the future.

These safety measure "will provide information that will allow us to focus survey resources on specific areas," said Rear Admiral Joel Whitehead, the Coast Guard District 8 commander stationed in New Orleans.

Robin Lebovitz, a spokeswoman for Shell Oil Co. in Houston, said beginning this year the oil company will provide storm updates on GOM operators via Twitter "to ensure that members of the media have instant access to relevant news and information." Shell also is hosting a hurricane season media briefing on June 1 to discuss the company's hurricane preparedness and response, she said.

The GOM accounts for around 15% of total domestic natural gas output and a quarter of domestic oil production. There are about 3,800 offshore production platforms in the GOM.

Since last year's storms in the GOM, 8% of the total gas and 5% of the oil output remains shut in because of storm-related subsea pipeline damage, Herbst said. Repairs are expected to be completed this summer.

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