Last year the United States experienced a temporary respite from the devastating hurricanes that swept through Florida and the Gulf Coast in 2005, but the trend toward violent storms is still in place. Hurricane Center Chief Forecaster Joe Bastardi warns that the U.S. Gulf Coast, which avoided the wrath of major storms and hurricanes in 2006, is at much higher risk of destructive tropical weather this year. And in the Atlantic, the Northeast also could suffer some hits.

“We are living in a time of climatic hardship,” said Bastardi. “We’re in a cycle where weather extremes are more the norm and not the exception. One of the ways this manifests itself is in the intensity of hurricanes and storms. Last year was just a breather because the overall pattern shows no sign of reversing in the near term.”

Storms in the Gulf, particularly in the central and eastern Gulf of Mexico, could have significant implications for the areas recovering from the devastation wrought by the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 — which included Katrina — as well as for energy prices, because of the significant energy production that occurs in the Gulf.

After a relatively quiet 2006, Bastardi predicted that “the Gulf and Florida face a renewed threat, and we will see more powerful storms across the board. We will not get anywhere near the amount of storms that we did in 2005, but it is the intensity of the storms we do get that will be of major concern.” Last year in May Bastardi told the Offshore Technology Conference he expected the eastern and central Gulf to be quieter and to see more storms in the western Gulf in the 2006 summer (see Daily GPI, May 4, 2006).

Now, “we’ll see storms on the prowl in the Gulf again. The entire region — including New Orleans and other areas that are still rebuilding after Katrina — is susceptible to landfalling storms,” he said.

As for the Northeast, Bastardi’s 2006 forecast still holds: the region is likely be the target of storm strikes over the next 10 years. “Last year the Northeast may have dodged a bullet, but unfortunately you can only be lucky for so long. We are in a pattern similar to that of the late 1930s through the 1940s, when the Northeast was hit by two major storms.”

Last year, Bastardi forecast that the East Coast would be far more likely than the eastern and central Gulf to see hurricane activity, and indeed, most of 2006’s 10 storms tracked farther east than in 2005 — including many that expired in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and Ernesto, which caused a half-billion dollars in damages in the region from North Carolina to New Jersey.

Asked about the diminished number of tropical cyclones in 2006 compared to 2005, Director of Forecast Operations Ken Reeves said, “Keep in mind that in 1992, a year with very few storms, we saw one of the most destructive in recorded history — Hurricane Andrew. This year is shaping up to be one that features some potentially very powerful storms, so whether or not the quantity is there, the danger certainly is.”

The development of an El Niño last year has been frequently cited as a reason that the 2006 hurricane season resulted in few landfalling storms, and the development of a La Niña this year is already causing some forecasters to project a higher-than-average number of tropical cyclones in 2007. Bastardi and Reeves believe that the El Niño/La Niña connection is given too much emphasis when these events are weak.

“Last year’s season wasn’t truncated because of an El Niño,” said Reeves. “After all, there was a much stronger El Niño in effect in 2004, and that was a significantly more active hurricane season than last year. Similarly, a La Niña won’t be the main driver of this year’s hurricane season.” Among many factors that came into play, last year’s storms were weakened by drier-than-normal air and higher-than-normal levels of dust in the atmosphere over the Atlantic.

Bastardi instead points to the pattern of Atlantic Ocean water temperatures as a leading factor in determining the power of a hurricane season, as well as the overall cyclical trend of more extreme weather across the U.S. Specifically, he points to the recent hot, dry summers in the West and Plains as a precursor to increased Atlantic Basin hurricane intensity, one of the patterns identified by his comparative research of previous seasons.

The full hurricane season forecast will be available in early May, released in conjunction with the Second Annual AccuWeather Hurricane Summit in Houston.

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