Government Hurricane Forecasters Predict a Rough Season

NOAA predicts a bad year: 7-10 hurricanes. But how real are the forecasts?

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 9:54 PM

May 22, 2007 — -- The federal government predicted today an active hurricane season for 2007 -- with 13 to 17 named storms, of which as many as 10 could become full hurricanes.

Three to five of those could become "major" hurricanes -- category 3 or higher -- with winds of more than 110 miles an hour.

"Years like this have historically had two to four storms making landfall," said Gerry Bell, lead hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Government officials urged people to take the warning seriously, noting that 53 percent of the U.S. population now lives within 50 miles of a coastline. And even if the numbers are off, the consequences of a storm making landfall, they said, are no less severe.

"It just takes one hurricane to make it a bad year for everyone here," said Conrad Lautenbacher, head of NOAA.

While generally expressing confidence in the predictions, experts said predicting hurricanes can be an inexact science.

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, for example, generated 15 hurricanes. A record four major hurricanes hit the United States, including Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, killed 1,300 people and caused $80 billion in damage.

Forecasters had expected an active 2006 season as well, but only 10 storms formed, five of which became hurricanes. Hurricane experts said El Nino -- the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that tends to reduce the number of Atlantic hurricanes -- was largely to blame.

The year-to-year swings, experts said, show how difficult it can be to predict hurricane activity.

Hurricane scientists use a variety of tools to predict how a season will shape up, including computer models, historical trends and general global conditions like sea surface temperature. With all their data and knowledge, however, experts said it all comes down to hurricane forecasters making an educated "best guess."