This May 12, 2014 photo shows a house across from the ocean in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River N.J. in much the same condition as it was the day after Superstorm Sandy destroyed it.
The 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season is likely to feature a near-to-slightly-below average number of tropical storms, hurricanes and intense hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Thursday.
Specifically, the agency, which runs the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, said there is a 70% chance that the hurricane season will see eight to 13 named storms (with sustained winds of 39 miles per hour or higher), three to six of which will strengthen into hurricanes (with sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher), and one to two hurricanes that will intensify into major storms, with sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or higher.
The outlook calls for a 50% chance of a below-normal season, a 40% chance of a near-normal season, and just a 10% chance of an above-normal season. The hurricane season kicks off on June 1 and runs through November 30, although storms can form in the Atlantic during December too.
Despite the fact that the North Atlantic Ocean has been in an active period of storm activity since 1995, NOAA officials said that two factors suggest that this won't be a blockbuster season.
The first is the expected development of El Niño conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which can act to increase atmospheric wind shear across the tropical Atlantic. Wind shear refers to winds that change direction or speed with height, or both, and developing tropical storms and hurricanes are sensitive to high amounts of wind shear, undergoing weakening trends when they encounter such conditions.
El Niño can also increase the trade winds that blow from east to west across the tropical Atlantic, and make the atmosphere more stable, which limits the ability of tropical waves coming off of Africa to intensify into tropical storms or hurricanes.
The second factor that suggests this hurricane season will be a below average one, in terms of the number of storms, is the sea surface temperatures in the area where such storms typically develop. In recent years, sea surface temperatures have been unusually mild across the Atlantic Ocean, but this year they are likely to be near to below average. Since hurricanes derive their energy from warm ocean waters, cooler seas can further dampen hurricane activity.
NOAA unveiled the hurricane outlook at a press conference at New York City's Office of Emergency Management, in order to highlight advances in hurricane forecasting and warning communication that have taken place since Hurricane Sandy struck the region in October 2012.
The National Weather Service (NWS), working with the National Ocean Service, which is another NOAA agency, plans to roll out storm surge inundation maps that will be updated every six hours beginning two days before a hurricane or tropical storm makes landfall.
When Hurricane Sandy struck, storm surge information was only made available via text products, which subsequent research found confused many people and made it difficult to tell which parts of the city would be underwater.
“Visual tools are critical,” said Holly Bamford, the director of the National Ocean Service.
Since the storm, New York has established six hurricane evacuation zones that include about 3 million New Yorkers, according to Joseph F. Bruno, the commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management. Bruno told reporters that the new storm surge inundation maps can be overlaid on top of the evacuation zone maps to inform city officials of which areas will need to be evacuated ahead of a storm.
In addition to the storm surge maps, the NWS is also working to roll out targeted storm surge warnings, which would be separate from hurricane watches and warnings, in 2015. Storm surge flooding typically kills more people than a hurricane's winds do.
The agency has also been making upgrades to the computer models that help forecasters predict the track and intensity of hurricanes, according to NWS director Louis Uccellini. In the past two decades, meteorologists have made great strides in improving storm track forecasts, but intensity forecasts have lagged behind. The newly enhanced computer models, which have a higher resolution that can simulate small scale features such as a hurricane's eye wall, for example, may finally help make intensity forecasts more reliable, he said.
“We’re optimistic now that we’re gonna start seeing a trend of improvements,” Uccellini said.
Officials cautioned that the hurricane seasonal outlooks don't provide information on where hurricanes might strike this year.
In addition, the outlooks are often wrong. Last year, for example, NOAA projected that there would be an active to very active season, with between 13 and 20 named storms, and seven to 11 hurricanes.
However, only 13 named storms occurred, just two of which became hurricanes, and none became major hurricanes. It turned out to be the least active Atlantic hurricane season in 30 years.
NOAA experts and emergency management officials cautioned that it only takes one landfalling storm for a hurricane season to be remembered as a destructive one.
"And even though we expect El Niño to suppress the number of storms this season, it's important to remember it takes only one land falling storm to cause a disaster," said NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan.
There is one unscientific reason to believe that this year will see a major hurricane make landfall in the U.S. No major hurricane has struck the U.S. since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which is a record 9-year run without such an intense storm hitting the coast. (Although it was extremely destructive, Hurricane Sandy was only a Category One storm when it approached the New Jersey Shore. Sandy had characteristics, such as its massive size, that made it have impacts similar to a much stronger hurricane, but it technically was not a "major" hurricane as defined on the official scale.)
At some point, America's major hurricane luck is bound to run out.