Ernesto Shows Hurricanes Still Possible After Quiet July

7:41 AM, Aug 3, 2012   |    comments
fishing pier is pounded by wind and waves from Hurricane Irene August 27, 2011 in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. (Getty Images)
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Fort Myers, FL (written by Kevin Lollar/The News-Press) -- Hurricane season 2012 might seem like a snoozer, but statistically speaking, it's been a record-setter: Tropical Storm Debby, which formed June 23, was the earliest fourth named storm in history.

Another interesting meteorological tidbit about this season, which runs June 1 through Nov. 30: Two tropical storms, Alberto and Beryl, formed in May, before the season even started.

"The only other time two storms formed before June 1 was 1887 and 1908, so that's kind of weird," said spokesman Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center. "And Beryl, which came ashore at Jacksonville Beach, Fla., was the strongest pre-June cyclone ever to make U.S. landfall."

With the peak of the season approaching, storm activity may be accelerating. On Thursday afternoon, Tropical Storm Ernesto formed west of the Windward Islands and is moving west at 20 mph with 35-mph maximum sustained winds.

"It's a long way away from you, but it could enter the Gulf of Mexico, and you've got to keep an eye on anything that has the potential to enter the Gulf," said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist for Weather Underground. "It's struggling now, but if it manages to make it semi-intact into the central Caribbean, conditions are more favorable that it will get organized."

On Thursday, the hurricane center sent a Hurricane Hunter aircraft into the storm.

Quiet July

Despite the early activity, July was dead. Not a single named storm formed during the month.

"People will probably say, 'Oh, my gosh, that's so unusual,' " Feltgen said. "Well, no, not really: Going back to 1851, we haven't had a tropical storm in July 88 times -- the last time was 2009. That's more than half the time, so it's not unusual."

Florida's biggest tropical event this season has been Tropical Storm Debby, which caused inland flooding in northern and central Florida in late June.

At the beginning of hurricane season, Colorado State University's tropical storm forecasting team predicted a near-normal hurricane season with 13 named storms (the average is 12), five hurricanes (the average is 6.5) and two major hurricanes (the average is two).

Traditionally, peak hurricane season starts in September -- since 1851, more than 60 percent of all tropical storms, more than 65 percent of all hurricanes and more than 55 percent of U.S. landfalling hurricanes formed after Sept. 1.

"So, now we're getting into August, just ahead of the peak season," Feltgen said. "We'll start watching these tropical waves coming off the west coast of Africa. If something's going to develop, those are the seedlings."

El Nino effect

The question is how many of these seedlings will, indeed, develop.

Colorado State's updated forecast, due out Friday, might lower the prediction for the rest of the season because evidence suggests El Nino is forming. Colorado State forecasters could not be reached for comment this week.

El Nino is a periodic warming of water in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean that causes wind shear -- changes in wind speed and direction with altitude -- that can blow developing tropical systems apart.

When El Nino is present, fewer tropical cyclones get beyond the seedling stage.

"El Nino has been borderline present for the past month," Masters said. "So far, it hasn't had an impact on wind shear in the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean. El Nino is probably just getting going, and we expect it to intensify over the next few months."

Even if El Nino forms, people should not let their guards down, Feltgen said. Hurricane Andrew caused $40 billion in damage and killed 61 people in 1992, an El Nino year.

"Even in an El Nino Year, you can get one of these things sneaking through," Feltgen said. "It's not a matter of if you expect 10 more storms or 50 more or one more. If that one is the one that hits you, it can ruin your year."

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