Another sleepless hurricane season?

Shunpiking magazine, May 2006, Volume 11, Number One

There is a great likelihood that the upcoming 2006 hurricane season will extend to nine the consecutive years in which the number of tropical cyclones formed in the Atlantic Basin and receiving a name would surpass the historic yearly average of ten.

Dr. Maritza Ballester, one of the authors of the Cuban model for the forecasting of cyclone activity, says that all long-range forecasts concur; the upcoming hurricane season will be very active, with between 15 and 17 tropical storms, of which eight or nine could reach hurricane category. Several elements help to sustain these forecasts. The majority of models show prevailing neutral conditions in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific Ocean region during the next six months.

At this time, there is no forecast calling for the occurrence of the 'El Nino' weather phenomenon, which favours the formation of tropical cyclones in the Caribbean. At the end of February 2006 sea surface temperatures in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico were slightly higher than those reported during the same date of 2005. This scenario fosters the increase of tropical storm activity, which gets a boost from the prevailing wind circulation in the lower stratosphere, at altitudes between 21 and 24 kilometres. Predicting that the number of tropical storms this season will be around 15 - coinciding with other forecasts - Dr. Ballester noted that an official public forecast will be made in May. The region has undergone a period of great tropical cyclone activity since 1995, which could continue for the next fifteen to twenty years. Another element showing this tendency is that since 1998 the last eight tropical storm seasons registered a number of hurricanes above the historic statistical mean, unprecedented since 1886, when data started to be systematically collected. When asked about the possibilities that the upcoming season will be similar to the record-breaking 2005 season that brought 27 storms, Dr. Ballester explained that a cooling process took place in the Equatorial Pacific in 2005, near the coasts of South America, and that further boosted the cyclonic activity. She said it looks like that element will not be present this year. However the forecaster adds that the heating of the sea surface, observed all over the North Atlantic Basin last season, reached the highest temperatures since records of that weather parameter started to be registered in 1951. In 2005 the number of storms reaching the hurricane category was set at 15 (the previous record of 12 dates back to 1969) when tropical storm Cindy was later recognized as a hurricane. Likewise, the record number of category 5 hurricanes for a single season went up to four, when Emily was added to the list originally formed by Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Adjusting the equipment

Facing the possibility of another summer with a high frequency of cyclones in the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, Cuba is getting ready all its human and technological arsenal to meet the threat.

Dr. Jose Rubiera, head of the Forecast Department of the Institute of Meteorology, said the island nation will be receiving the 2006 hurricane season with the total automation of its eight long-range weather radar stations, something that will guarantee real time coverage of the tracking and evolution of any tropical weather system menacing the Cuban archipelago. As a further tool to increase the effectiveness of the forecasting of the different weather variables, model MM5, geared to the conditions prevailing in Cuba, was adapted by specialists of the Centre for Atmospheric Physics of the Institute of Meteorology.

Thanks to the new system, TV weather coverage of a tropical storm or hurricane in progress will allow viewers to see an animated trajectory of the cone of possible impact, areas of influence, as well as expected wind fields, movement of the rain areas, zones more exposed to direct impact, coastal areas where sea surge or storm tide may occur, and other elements that will allow a much better understanding of the characteristics of an impending storm, and raising the public's readiness.

For everyone's peace of mind, meteorologists are dressing in their combat gear to deal with the challenges posed by nature, and Alberto (the name chosen for the first storm of the season) could be the first battle. The tropical storms will receive the following names: Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence, Gordon, Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, Rafael, Sandy, Tony, Valerie and William.

The number of tropical cyclones registered during the past eight seasons were:

1998 14
1999 12
2000 14
2001 15
2002 12
2003 16
2004 16
2005 27

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