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Get ready for what could be a busy hurricane season this year

The U.S. hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane since 2005, a record that probably won’t be extended if 2016 is a big year with strong storms. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The U.S. hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane since 2005, a record that probably won’t be extended if 2016 is a big year with strong storms. (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Bloomberg) -- The chances the Atlantic will spit out more hurricanes and tropical storms this year than 2015 just edged up.

The reason is half a world away in the Pacific. The odds are looking better that El Nino will be gone by the time the heart of the season rolls around, starting in late August.

“I would expect a lot more activity than we had last year with the removal of El Nino,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

During El Nino years, the warming of the Pacific brings more wind shear across the Atlantic. This can tear the delicate structure of a tropical storm or hurricane to pieces because winds blow at different speeds or directions at varying altitudes. When El Nino fades away, that major roadblock is lifted.

So what’s the prognosis for the 2016 hurricane season?

“We might look to 2010 for that answer,” Masters said. 

A borderline moderate-to-strong El Nino that year flipped over by fall to a La Nina — a cooling in the equatorial Pacific — and the Atlantic produced 19 named storms and two depressions, including hurricanes Igor and Tomas.

Recent history

Igor hit Newfoundland “and was the most damaging hurricane in recent history for that island,” according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Tomas killed 44 people in the Caribbean and devastated St. Lucia. The names of both storms were retired.

The look back to 2010 is just one possibility of what could happen, because “historical analogs aren’t perfect,” Masters said. A few wild cards in the Atlantic itself could determine the outcome.

“My big concern is that the North Atlantic is still quite cold,” said Phil Klotzbach, lead author of the Colorado State University seasonal hurricane forecast.

The colder water from the northern half of the ocean could push its way south, where the tropical Atlantic is quite warm, and this might make it harder for storms to develop.

“That’s the huge question that I think will play the primary role in how active this season is,” Klotzbach said.

Warm temperatures

If the North Atlantic doesn’t cool the tropics, warm temperatures there could last into August and September, when some of the strongest storms are born. The warm water across the Atlantic already produced Hurricane Alex, a rare January storm.

More storms increase the chances for a strike in the Gulf of Mexico or along the thousands of miles of heavily populated coast line. While hurricanes there don’t have the impact on natural-gas and oil markets they once did, bad weather in the Gulf can shut down some production and threaten the region’s many refineries.

The U.S. hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane since 2005, a record that probably won’t be extended if 2016 is a big year with strong storms. This is a problem because from 1990 to 2008, the population density increased by 32% in coastal areas of the Gulf and by 17% along the Atlantic coastline, the hurricane center said.

Seventy-two percent of ports in the Gulf, 27% of major roads there and 9% of railroad lines are at or below 4 feet in elevation — low enough to get swamped by a hurricane’s storm surge.

So it will be interesting to see what the Pacific brings next summer.

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