By the end of August in 2005, an extraordinary seven tropical storms and five hurricanes (Cindy, Dennis, Emily, Irene, and Katrina) already had formed in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Claims recently spoke with Dr. Steve Smith to get an update on the 2006 hurricane season predictions made earlier this year.

This year’s tropical storm and hurricane activity has not been as active as many weather experts anticipated. Why is this shaping up to be what you call an “average” hurricane season?

The water temperature in the Atlantic is, for the most part, above the threshold where hurricanes can form. However, temperatures are not significantly warmer than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 1970-2000 average. Some areas of the Atlantic are warmer, but other parts — especially in the mid-tropical Atlantic — are cooler than average. This is in contrast to 2005 when the temperature across most of the Atlantic basin was significantly warmer than average.

Global warming is a reason hurricane activity has been predicted to increase. Do you agree with this logic?

While there have been some studies that show global climate changes could increase hurricane intensity, there currently is little scientific data for us to conclude that global climate change will increase hurricane frequency. However, there currently is a hypothesis actively being debated by climate scientists that the warming of the Atlantic Ocean over the past 10 years — and thus the increase in hurricane activity — is due to global climate changes and is not the result of a climate cycle in the Atlantic Ocean.

The jury is still out on this debate, but for the insurance industry in the short term, it doesn’t matter which theory is right; the next five to 10 years will likely see heightened hurricane activity no matter which theory is ultimately proved correct.

Weather experts take a lot of heat for their predictions. In your mind, how accurate is accurate?

Weather forecasters have developed a wide variety of ways to quantify how “good” a forecast is. However, these metrics often are rather opaque to non-forecasters. To my mind, an accurate forecast is one that intuitively seems reasonable. For example, a good hurricane activity forecast might be one that predicts the number of hurricanes to within two or three where the average might be 10.