The Atlantic hurricane season officially got under way on June 1, so the National Park Service has begun keeping an especially wary eye on the weather. The hazard zones are huge.
Folks managing NPS units along the Atlantic and Gulf shorelines are rightly worried about the potential impacts of storm surge, violent winds, hurled debris, and wind-driven salt spray. But some of the worst damage might occur inland as decaying tropical cyclones stir up tornadoes and unleash damaging straight-line winds, torrential rain, and flash flooding.
A lot of parks are in harm’s way, and history tells us that at least some will take a terrible beating this year. Recovery can be a slow and costly business, too. The Fort Pickens area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, for example, was so thoroughly trashed by a succession of severe storms in 2004 and 2005 that it had to be closed to vehicular traffic for several years and is still operating under makeshift conditions. Hurricanes damaged the Flamingo Lodge so badly in 2005 that it had to be demolished and there’s no telling when or if the popular Flamingo area of Everglades National Park will have motel lodging again. There are many such stories.
The NPS recently got some good news when forecasters reiterated their belief that the 2009 hurricane season is likely to be near-normal. To put a finer point on it, NOAA’s National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center said that -- at least for the time being -- there’s only a 25 percent chance that hurricane activity this season will be above-normal. Happily, there is also a 25 percent probability that this will be a low-activity season.
Right now, the smart money is going with that 75 percent probability of a normal- or below-normal activity. This is matched to a 70 percent probability that there will be 9 to 14 named tropical storms, with four to seven passing the hurricane threshold (sustained winds of 74+ mph) and one to three of those becoming major hurricanes (110+ mph).
Too much confusing detail? OK, it looks like we’re in for an average year, so just go with the central tendency forecast. A statistically average hurricane season has 11 named storms, including six hurricanes. Four of the hurricanes are minimal to moderate ones (category 1 or 2), and two are major ones (category 3, 4, or 5).
The forecasters seem to have lucked out this year. Dealing with global weather patterns is less tricky right now than it has been in recent years. Adjustments will be needed, of course. As the hurricane season unfolds toward its November conclusion, forecasters will plug in new data, update their models, consult their Ouija boards, and crank out new forecasts.
Hurricane expectations aside, this year (or any year) could bring a lot of tropical storms that must be given names. NOAA gives a tropical depression a name, elevating it to tropical storm status, when its sustained winds reach 39 mph, and to hurricane status if its sustained winds hit 74+ mph.
A separate alphabetical list of names, including both male and female names, is used in chronological order each year. The list runs from A to W, excluding names beginning with Q or U. NOAA has pre-selected six sets of storm names and is repeating them in a six-year rotation.
There's a provision for replacing the retired names of particularly devastating hurricanes. Unfortunately, all but one year (2006) in the past ten has had such a storm, and fully two dozen names, including the memorable Katrina (2005), have been retired so far this century.
If you've got a long memory, you may recall that Katrina was employed in the 1967 and 1981 rotations.
This year’s Atlantic storm names are listed below. Let’s hope that we don’t have to use them all. While we’re at it, let’s pray that none will have to be retired.
Postscript: The next major update of the seasonal forecast will be out in early August. That’s just before the worst tropical storms of the season normally take place. The biggest and baddest storms tend to come later in the season because that’s when heat buildup is greatest in the tropics.