Don't celebrate the lack of storms yet

Six weeks into the hurricane season and the Atlantic has seen only one named storm. What’s happening and will we luck out this year?

Published July 17, 2006

Eight weeks into the 2005 hurricane season, Tropical Storm Gert was making its way west to Mexico, the seventh named storm of the season.

This year’s hurricane season has reached week eight with only one named storm, Alberto, which was barely a tropical storm as it slogged ashore in Florida’s Big Bend area.

Is this reason for optimism?

Not really.

“It’s very tempting for people to want to read into a lot of things,” said Jamie Rhome, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

“That type of philosophy for people other than trained experts is very dangerous. Bottom line is you need to be prepared.”

While westerly winds this summer have helped thwart the formation of storms in the Atlantic basin, the first part of this year’s season is actually quite average. It was the past two years that were extraordinary.

“On a statistical basis, one to two in June is typical,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md.

 “There’s nothing out of the ordinary right now. We’re only halfway through the month of July.’’

In 2004, 15 named storms formed in the Atlantic basin and 28 in 2005, a record.

Between 13 and 16 named storms are projected this year. Forecasters say that’s still well within reach.

Feltgen said strong upper-level winds blowing across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have prevented many potential storms from getting organized.

Tropical storms can take shape only when several variables — including warm sea temperatures and low wind shear — occur simultaneously

“If strong winds are blowing in the upper atmosphere from west to east, that’s going to take that disturbance and rip it apart,” Feltgen said.

He said winds more favorable to storm formation will arrive soon, likely portending more storms.

“Don’t let your guard down because we’ve had a respite over the last couple of weeks,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.’’

Forecasters say some variables that contribute to storm formation already are in place.

The Bermuda High, a massive system of high pressure that sets up in the Atlantic Ocean, can play a key role in directing storms that form off the African Coast.

Spinning clockwise, it can steer storms into Florida and the East Coast or, depending on its exact location, turn them north, away from the United States.

In addition, Feltgen said, sea surface temperatures are about two degrees above normal, which could lead to storms of  higher intensity. Last year, hurricanes Katrina and Rita became monstrous because of warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is also not unusual to have so few storms this far into the season.

In 2004, when the state was ravaged by hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, only one — Alex — formed by week eight.

“We’re pretty much on track,” said Frank Lepore, the public affairs manager for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Marlon A. Walker can be reached at (727) 893-8737 or mwalker@sptimes.com.