The emergence of Tropical Storm Debby in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) over the weekend, the unusually early start of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season and an increase in North Atlantic water temperatures have prompted Weather Services International (WSI) to increase the number of tropical storms in its forecast for this year.

The WSI forecast team now expects a total of 12 named storms in the Atlantic Basin this year, including six hurricanes, three of them major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher). That would be slightly lower than the 1950-2011 average of 12 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes and the 1995-2011 average of 15/eight/four, and it would be significantly less tropical activity than was observed in 2010 or 2011. WSI's previous forecast for this year had been 11/six/two (see Daily GPI, May 23; April 25).

"Although we are off to a fast start in 2012, we feel that the season will tail off more quickly than usual in September and October as a significant El Nino event continues to mature," said WSI Chief Meteorologist Todd Crawford. "However, the combination of a fast start and the recent increase in North Atlantic surface temperature anomalies over the last month dictate that we increase our forecast numbers a bit.

"Further, while the El Nino is rapidly developing, the atmospheric pattern is lagging a bit and does not yet have an El Nino 'look.' We expect the atmosphere to respond to El Nino over the next couple months, with increasingly unfavorable conditions for tropical development as the season wears on."

Debby, the fourth named storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, formed near the Yucatan peninsula at the end of last week, forcing offshore GOM oil and gas operators to evacuate workers from platforms and shut in production on Saturday. By Monday afternoon Debby was hovering near the Florida coast and major GOM leaseholders were redeploying their workers (see Daily GPI, June 26).

At 11 a.m. EDT Tuesday Debby was weakening, its maximum sustained winds down to 40 mph, and was located about 70 miles west of Cedar Key, FL. The storm was drifting to the east at about 3 mph and a tropical storm warning was in effect for the Florida Gulf Coast from Mexico Beach to Englewood.

Debby presents little further threat to energy interests in the GOM, but it continues to be a major flooding threat for Florida and southern Georgia, according to the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center (NHC).

"An eastward or east-northeastward motion with some increase in forward speed is expected during the next couple of days, and the center of Debby should be moving across north-central Florida tomorrow," NHC said Tuesday. "...Debby is expected to weaken to a tropical depression over the next day or two."

BP plc, Shell and other leaseholders began redeploying workers to their GOM operations on Monday as Debby faded near Florida's Gulf Coast. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. said Tuesday it had returned essential personnel to all of its producing facilities. "We have restarted production at the operated Constitution and Marco Polo platforms. We anticipate restarting production at Neptune and Independence Hub as safely and quickly as possible," Anadarko said.

The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which oversees oil and gas activity in the Gulf, said Tuesday that 18.1% of daily oil output and 17.2% of daily natural gas output from the GOM was shut in, down from 44.1% and 34.8%, respectively, on Monday. Personnel from 53 production platforms and one rig remained evacuated, down from 189 platforms and 22 rigs on Monday, according to BSEE.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which officially runs from June 1 to 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 last week and, despite becoming the season's first hurricane for a few hours on June 21, never threatened the North American mainland. By midday last Friday NHC had downgraded Chris to a post-tropical cyclone.

There is no particularly strong North American landfall signal for hurricanes this year, Crawford said. "For 2012, 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," he said.

The consensus forecast this year has been that the hurricane season is likely to produce fewer tropical storms than seen the last few years (see Daily GPI, June 4).

While last year's Atlantic hurricane season didn't bring many tropical storms to GOM energy interests or the North American mainland, it did produce the third-highest number of tropical storms since records began in 1851 and continued a trend of active hurricane seasons begun in 1995 (see Daily GPI, Nov. 29, 2011).

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