Hurricane Season 2011: The Predictions

Hurricane season is upon us. Just like Christmas, but with high winds and death from above instead of toys and egg nog, it creeps up on us quicker than we expect and, before we know it, we're knee deep in a disaster that used to be our living room. Ah, the holidays.

If you aren't well versed in hurricanes or perhaps new to this part of the country, you might want to consult our post answering ten questions about tropical storms. For the rest of us, it's time to go to the prediction portion of our program. This is where hurricane forecasters lay out their best forecasts for the upcoming season and, no matter what they predict, newscasters will overreact.

Weather services could predict kittens will float gently from the sky and land on a bed of goose feathers and the scare squad from local television would tell you that fearsome animals with hideous claws are coming straight for your eyeballs.

This year, there is good reason to believe that our hurricane season will be above average. But, before you go blaming us for sensationalizing everything, the truth is, we have been in a period of increased hurricane activity for about 15 years and it should continue for at least another decade. In fact, 2010 was an extremely busy year with 19 named storms, well above the average of about 12.

Fortunately, the U.S. suffered minimal effect, but that isn't likely to repeat itself in 2011.

Hurricanes are formed based on a complex set of variables, the more significant of which include how warm ocean waters are (sea surface temperatures or SSTs), the strength of upper level wind (wind shear), the amount of dust blowing off of the Sahara Dessert and over the Atlantic Ocean and the existence of weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña.

SSTs are at about normal levels thus far in the Gulf, but rapid warming is expected over the next couple of months, peaking in August and September, when the Atlantic basin is normally most active. Some forecasters are calling for an increased risk of landfall along the U.S. coast including a fairly high risk along the Gulf Coast, but that is still speculative at this point. Given that we had virtually no impact from storms last year, however, it's a safe bet someone along either the Atlantic or Gulf coasts will be affected by tropical weather this year.

Here are the most recent predictions by some of the major weather forecasting agencies for 2011:

Forcasting Agency Named Storms Hurricanes Major Hurricanes
NOAA 12-18 6-10 3-6
Colorado State University 16 9 5
AccuWeather 15 8 3
Impact Weather 14 8 4
Tropical Storm Risk 14 8 4
North Carolina State 13-16 7-9 3-5
Weather Services International 15 8 4
Earth Networks 13-14 7-8 4
Normal Season 11 6 2


Here are the results of predictions versus the actual totals from 2010:

  Named Storms Hurricanes Major Hurricanes
Predictions (Average) 16.8 8.8 4.2
Actual Results 19 12 5

Forecasters use complex computer models to help them ascertain their numbers and NOAA is almost always the most accurate. Groups will revise their forecasts later in the season depending upon numbers of storms and conditions at that point, but it would be accurate to say that everyone should expect an active hurricane season, so do what you need to do to prepare yourself, your family, your pets and your home, but don't be overly concerned. We survived one predicted armageddon already this year; it's a safe bet we'll make it through another one.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke