This year's Atlantic hurricane season, which officially begins June 1, is expected to be far more active than normal.
That's according to three forecasting groups, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which released its seasonal forecast Tuesday.
They anticipate as many as 17 tropical storms this year, of which 10 could form hurricanes. Up to five of those could become intense hurricanes, with maximum sustained winds of more than 111 miles an hour and storm surges at least nine feet above normal.
"We're in an active era that started in 1995," said Gerry Bell, the lead meteorologist for NOAA's seasonal forecasts. Historically, these active periods last from 25 to 40 years. So "there's a high probability of an above-normal season this year," he said.
Another group, led by the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at University College of London, estimates that between June and November, enough hurricanes will hit the US coast to vault the season into the top third of active seasons.
Last year saw similar early forecasts for a very active season. But in the end, the season produced only seven hurricanes, and none made landfall as a hurricane along the US and Canadian coasts.
Forecasters say they were blindsided in large part by mild El Niño conditions in the tropical Pacific that emerged during the late summer, on the eve of the most active period in a season.
When El Niño appears, it tends to suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic basin. In addition, a recurring, dust-laden layer of air stretched out over the Atlantic from western Africa and kept a lid on storm formation, preventing tall thunderheads from forming and becoming tropical systems.
This year, however, the Atlantic is unlikely to get that kind of help, forecasters say. El Niño has dissipated, and NOAA forecasters suggest its opposite, La Niña, may take its place this year. This, combined with other atmospheric and ocean indicators in the Atlantic, suggests that the stage is set for a busy season.
The seasonal outlooks come at a time of some angst – and urgency – regarding the future of research aimed at improving forecasts of individual storms.
During Tuesday's briefing, NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. highlighted the $300 million the US is spending to support hurricane research and operational forecasting.
Last week, however, the National Hurricane Center's director publicly chided his bosses at NOAA headquarters in Washington for cutting the National Weather Service's research budget. According to NOAA officials in Washington, the agency is spending some $1.5 million over two years on activities to celebrate 200 years of federally funded science research.
The costs of those celebrations equal the cuts the weather service faces in its severe-storm research program, according to an analysis earlier this month by Kei Koizumi, the budget guru at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
NOAA's research portfolio as a whole is being cut by nearly 10 percent over 2007's allotment. Many of the cuts result from Congress's decision to forgo earmarks, in which lawmakers can funnel money toward research projects federal agencies may or may not have on their wish lists.
The need for increased hurricane research is outlined in a report from the National Research Council in January that argues for a sustained, coordinated national hurricane research initiative.
These storms present the most costly natural hazards the country faces, notes Roger Lukas, a topical-cyclone researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "The amount of damage hurricanes inflict is 10 times that of earthquakes," he says. "But funding for hurricane research is about one-tenth of the money spent on earthquake research."
Dr. Lukas is one of two lead scientists for a research effort dubbed HiFi, a fledgling project that aims to improve hurricane-intensity forecasts – currently the weakest link in the National Hurricane Center's ability to provide timely warnings about the full impact a storm is likely to have when it makes landfall.
The bottom-up effort, he says, builds on key results from an Office of Naval Research project that uncovered important clues about interactions between the lowest levels of a storm and the upper layer of the ocean underneath it. But the researchers also were motivated by the damage inflicted during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.
Last November, the team behind HiFi proposed spending $25 million a year over 10 years, with the goal of delivering the first improvements to intensity forecasts within five years. The cost is largely driven by a heavy reliance on robotic air and underwater vehicles needed to explore regions of the atmosphere and ocean during storms that humans have no way of reaching safely. And it's driven by the project's duration and the need to sample as many storms as possible to have a useful effect on forecasting models. During a typical season, Lukas explains, researchers have about five or six storms to study. "But we need to have at least 20 or 30 cases to have confidence in our conclusions," he adds.
The prospects for dedicated funding for HiFi appear iffy at best. The US Senate is considering a bill that would direct NOAA and the National Science Foundation to initiate a national hurricane research initiative. Lukas says that in his discussions with congressional staffers, they play down prospects for new money, pointing to the rising costs of the war in Iraq and the tax cuts Congress enacted earlier in the Bush administration.
In the meantime, HiFi's scientists are moving ahead using research grants they already are receiving, Lukas says. An additional $25 million would represent a significant jump. Still, Lukas maintains, it's a small price to pay given the enormity of the damage hurricanes can inflict. HiFi's annual price tag would be "about the cost of five houses in Boca Raton" each year, he says, referring to one of the pricey locations north of Fort Lauderdale along Florida's "Gold Coast."