Hurricane Season 2012: The Predictions -- A Quiet Year in the Tropics?

With so few storms impacting the U.S. last season and with one of the worst droughts in recorded history gripping our region, it would be tempting to think that last year was a down year in hurricane production. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

In 2011, the Atlantic produced 19 named storms including seven hurricanes, of which four were of the major variety. A "normal" year is around ten named storms. Last year produced around a normal number of major storms, but an abnormally high number of tropical storms. Very few made landfall anywhere, let alone the U.S., but they were out there. It should be noted that predictions for an active season last year were nearly dead on the money, which brings us to prediction time 2012.

This year, despite two named storms cropping up before the season has actually started, all of the major storm-forecasting outfits including the National Hurricane Center are predicting a normal year in the Atlantic, which means around ten named storms, of which four or five will be hurricanes and two or three of those will be major -- a big change from last year.

The main reason for this shift is a decrease in sea surface temperatures throughout the Atlantic basin. Compared to last year at this time, it's positively cool out there, though temperatures right along the Texas coast are very warm.

Sea surface temperatures are one of the factors involved in either limiting or increasing the changes of developing storms. Storms need deep, warm water to develop and with less available, there is not enough fuel to develop large storms. The later in the year the seas warm, the lower the risk of storms.

Other factors for developing storms include wind shear and Saharan dust blowing off of Africa, to name a couple. But, there are truly a myriad of factors that influence the development of weather, hurricanes included.

A key reason for optimism is the prediction that an El Niño event will emerge over the Pacific Ocean during the hurricane season. El Niño tends to hinder the development of storms over the Atlantic basin due to the higher upper level winds it creates and sends across Mexico and Central America into the area.

The opposite of this is La Niña, which decreases wind shear over the Atlantic, making for favorable hurricane conditions. We had a La Niña event last season.

La Niña or El Niño aside, it only takes one hurricane to strike the area where you live to make it a really crappy year for tropical weather. Both hurricanes Alicia and Andrew were born in down years and those who know hurricanes know the impact they had. So, get your supplies ready and prepare to batten down those hatches...just in case.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, with the peak coming between late August and middle September.

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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