A fading El Nino -- warmer-than-normal water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator -- signals an increased chance for more tropical storms in the Atlantic Basin this year, according to forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"El Nino typically suppresses Atlantic hurricane activity but now that it's gone, we could see a busier season ahead," said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center. "This evolution, combined with the more conducive conditions associated with the ongoing high-activity era for Atlantic hurricanes that began in 1995, increases the likelihood of above-normal activity this year."
NOAA said Thursday that it expects 10 to 17 named storms to form in the Atlantic Basin by Nov. 30, the official end of the hurricane season, with five to nine becoming hurricanes, including two to four major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher). Those numbers include the two named storms which already formed this year: Andrea, which formed in May, prior to the June 1 official start of Atlantic hurricane season, and Barry, which made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 1 hurricane July 13.
Barry impacted Gulf of Mexico (GOM) production levels, sinking Gulf region production to a 545-day low and shutting in more than half of GOM natural gas production for a short time.
NOAA's latest prognostication is slightly greater than one the agency issued in May, when it said it expected nine to 15 named storms to form in the Atlantic this year, with four to eight becoming hurricanes, including two to four major hurricanes. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.
The dissipating El Nino not only increases chances for more tropical storms in the Atlantic, "some of those hurricanes and major hurricanes could be longer and stronger than was predicted in May, because atmospheric wind patterns are expected to be more hospitable to storm formation," Bell said.
Forecasters at Colorado State University (CSU) said Tuesday that they still expect a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season, with 14 named storms, including seven hurricanes, two of them major hurricanes, about the same number of storms they expected in April.
"Sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic remain near average," the CSU team said. "While the odds of a weak El Nino persisting through August-October have decreased, vertical wind shear in the Caribbean remains relatively high."
A combination of fewer tropical storms and a lessening reliance on GOM oil and natural gas production, thanks to the growth in production from the U.S. onshore, has kept hurricane-related damage to the nation's energy infrastructure and markets to a minimum in recent years. But with several liquefied natural gas export and petrochemical facilities under development on the Gulf Coast, tropical storms in the GOM remain on the energy industry's radar.