Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the East Coast over the weekend, potentially causing billions in damage, but it may be only the first of eight major Atlantic hurricanes, according to Andover, MA-based WSI Corp., which last week said it expects a total of 15-18 named storms, including eight hurricanes, four of them Category Three or greater, to form this year. The forecasters also said they expect much of the northern United States to experience temperatures averaging significantly above normal over the next three months.

“Before Irene this season had been characterized by a slew of weak/moderate tropical storms. To date, we have already had nine named storms and we’re still two to three weeks away from the midpoint of the season,” said WSI Chief Meteorologist Todd Crawford. “Because of this we had no choice but to increase our named storms forecast from 15 to 18, and the current pace suggests that even this number may be too low.” In its previous tropical forecast, WSI had said it expected a maximum of 15 named storms to form in the Atlantic Basin (see NGI, Aug. 1).

The Gulf of Mexico, which has so far this year been spared the brunt of any significant tropical activity, may be under the greatest threat of hurricane landfall as the season progresses, Crawford said.

The core of what the National Hurricane Center (NHC) was calling “Large Hurricane Irene” was approaching the North Carolina coast late Friday and was expected to bring hurricane-force winds, rain and flooding to portions of the Mid-Atlantic and New England over the weekend, with the storm’s center somewhere near the Maine-Canada border by Monday morning. On Thursday President Obama declared an emergency, authorizing federal aid to support North Carolina’s anticipated response to the storm, and the governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut also declared emergencies. For the first time ever portions of New York City were being evacuated ahead of the storm.

Also on Friday, NHC was tracking the year’s tenth tropical depression, which was located about 655 miles west of the southernmost Cape Verde Islands. That system was moving northwest at about 8 mph with maximum sustained winds near 35 mph and was not expected to strengthen over the weekend, according to NHC. forecasters earlier this month predicted a ramping up of tropical activity (see NGI, Aug. 15) and WeatherBELL Analytics chief meteorologist Joe Bastardi last week said he expected tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Basin to increase, with multiple hurricanes forming by mid-September.

“Rarely and certainly not since 2008, when six named storms in a row struck the U.S., do we see the Atlantic basin ready to become a focal point of the Earth’s tropical activity right at the height of the hurricane season,” Bastardi said. As many as seven tropical storms are likely to emerge in the next month, he said.

A series of tropical forecasters, including WSI, (see NGI, April 4), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (see NGI, Aug. 8), Colorado State University (see NGI, June 6) and MDA EarthSat (see NGI, May 23) have predicted above-average tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Basin.

WSI last week also said much of the northern United States can expect temperatures to average significantly above normal over the next three months, while the Pacific Coast and parts of the Southeast will be cooler than normal. Below-normal temperatures will become more likely in the East and Central areas by late November, the forecasters said.

“While the oppressive summer heat has at least temporarily broken across much of the northern U.S., we do expect a return to more persistent above-normal temperatures as we head into the fall season,” Crawford said.

“The fall pattern will generally be driven by the very strong northern Pacific Ocean signal, with significant positive ocean temperature anomalies surrounded by negative ocean temperature anomalies. This particular setup, known as the negative phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, typically changes the downstream atmospheric pattern to favor very warm temperatures across the north-central and northeastern U.S. for much of the fall season. As we near the end of fall, however, we feel that there are increasing chances for below-normal temperatures across the central and eastern U.S., as atmospheric blocking reemerges.”

WSI expects warmer-than-normal temperatures to be in place across most of the country in September, with only the Northwest, Florida and coastal California forecast to see cooler-than-normal conditions. That forecast will make it difficult for gas inventories to set another new storage record this year, according to Energy Securities Analysis Inc. Senior Analyst Chris Kostas.

“Cooler-than-normal temperatures expected along the Pacific Coast and in Florida won’t be enough to offset the price-supportive underpinnings expected from the rest of the country,” Kostas said in a statement issued in conjunction with WSI’s outlook. “In addition, above-normal cooling demand and the beginning of the generation maintenance season in [electricity grid operators] ERCOT, MISO, New York, New England and PJM should combine to keep natural gas prices from collapsing below $3.50/MMBtu this year. This is despite the huge increase in year-over-year gas production. While power prices are likely to be relatively soft due to lower fuel costs in September, implied market heat rates are likely to remain firm in those power pools as a result of the slightly above-normal cooling demand.”

WSI’s temperature forecast map remains unchanged for October, with most of the country remaining warmer than normal through the end of the month.

“While cooling demand tapers off significantly in October, the generator maintenance period takes a great deal of coal and nuclear generation offline, leaving natural-gas-fired generators to fill in the gap,” Kostas said. “With warmer-than-normal temperatures expected in ERCOT, MISO, PJM, New York and New England in October, above-normal seasonal power demand and the continuation of the generation maintenance period should keep demand firm and gas prices from collapsing as the injection season comes to an end…With temperatures expected to be warmer than normal in September and October through most of the country, we expect gas inventory levels to have trouble challenging last year’s record of 3,840 Bcf by the end of the injection season. Our current end-of-season storage forecast currently stands at 3,650 Bcf.”

While heating demand in the Consuming East usually begins to pick up in November, warmer-than-normal temperatures are expected to dominate all of the country except the Southeast and Texas in November, WSI said. As a result, heating demand for gas will likely run slightly below normal, according to Kostas.

“Henry Hub natural gas prices can be expected to pick up slightly from October shoulder season levels, however, as winter heating demand begins,” Kostas said. “As we enter the winter heating season, we expect that gas prices could also be supported by inventory levels that are slightly lower than those of last year. Power prices and heat rates are likely to be soft in Florida and the Southeast as a result of the cooler-than-normal temperatures expected there.”

WSI is scheduled to issue its next seasonal outlook on Sept. 20.

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