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    Ocean may give birth to El Nino

    The phenomenon could bring lots of rain to the Tampa Bay area while blunting hurricane activity.

    By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 11, 2002

    Federal weather experts said Thursday that the waters of the tropical Pacific Ocean are warming up -- a condition that could lead to El Nino.

    Although the eastern Pacific is a long way away, a strong El Nino could have a powerful effect on Florida weather.

    It is unknown how strong El Nino would be, but a robust one would inhibit the development of hurricanes and could bring heavy rain to the Tampa Bay area.

    "Rain would be welcome," said Michelle Robinson, spokeswoman for Tampa Bay Water. "We are abnormally dry."

    Rainfall in the region was about 2 inches below normal for 2001, she said, and the area is still running a long-term cumulative deficit of about 30 inches.

    But weather influenced by El Nino, a massive shifting of warm water from the western Pacific to the eastern Pacific, also can be severe.

    The 1997-98 El Nino caused floods in California and along the Gulf Coast. In South America, floods and mudslides threatened economic ruin.

    Elsewhere it produced drought. It sent elephant herds on long journeys searching for water on Africa's dusty plains. It so parched Southeast Asia that choking smoke from vast forest fires blotted out the sun for days.

    The El Nino statement was made by the federal Climate Prediction Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency said El Nino could occur by early spring, but any impact on the United States would be unlikely before late summer, continuing through fall and into next winter.

    "The magnitude of an El Nino determines the severity of its impacts," said climate specialist Vernon Kousky. "At this point, it is too early to predict if this El Nino might develop along the same lines as the 1997-98 episode, or be weaker," he said.

    In a December preview of the 2002 hurricane season, Colorado State University professor William M. Gray predicted the formation of El Nino -- an important fact in the tropics, since El Nino produces high altitude winds that knock the tops off developing storms.

    But, he said then, it would be a "weak to modest" phenomenon, and "should not cause a significant reduction in next year's Atlantic hurricane activity."

    He stuck by that forecast Thursday.

    "I still don't think it will be a strong one," he said. "It will not be another like in 1997, I'm absolutely sure of that."

    Gray's early hurricane forecast for 2002 calls for 13 named storms, with eight of those becoming hurricanes. The corresponding numbers for the season just ended were 15 and 9.

    He acknowledged that a strong El Nino might cause some re-thinking of the forecast, however.

    "Call me next fall; I might feel differently," he said. "We'll modify the forecast if the El Nino does come on."

    The hurricane season begins June 1 and continues through November.

    -- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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