Dec. 6, 2002 – Along with the holidays, December always brings the first hurricane forecasts for the coming year by Colorado State University's William Gray and his research team.
For 2003, they are forecasting an Atlantic hurricane season of above-average activity with a dozen named storms. They project that eight of these will become hurricanes, three of them intense hurricanes with sustained winds of 111 mph or more.
As Virgin Islands residents well know, it only takes one hurricane to wreak havoc. The territory was lucky this year. Not one hurricane or tropical storm made landfall in the territory, although a few tropical depressions swept through.
Gray said in a release that he expects the 2003 hurricane season to be 40 percent busier than the long-term average of 9.6 tropical storms, 5.9 hurricanes and 2.3 intense hurricanes.
He said he projects increased activity for 2003 in large part due to a predicted end of current El Niño conditions and anticipation of warm sea-surface temperatures in the north and tropical Atlantic. He said the phenomenon of global warming was not a factor.
Gray indicated, as he has in past forecasts, that the region is now in a multi-decade hurricane era similar to the 1940s and 1950s, which saw large numbers of destructive hurricanes. However, he said there will be years with below-average activity, such as 2002, which saw 12 named storms, four hurricanes and two intense hurricanes develop.
Last year at this time, he predicted 13 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes, for 2002. By his final 2002 prediction, in September, he had cut the number to eight named storms, three hurricanes and one intense hurricane.
Gray said his forecast on the number of named storms fell short because a large number of weak storms developed. "We underestimated and do not well understand why such a large number of weak tropical storms formed at high latitudes and never gained hurricane strength," he said in a late November press release. "However, this is a continual learning process, and we have become a little better educated as to why so many weaker systems formed in September."
He said his team is now using a recently developed statistical forecasting system based on 51 years of storm data that is expected to improve long-range forecasts. "Overall, we are making very good progress on improving statistical hurricane forecasting techniques and in better understanding why there is such variability in month-to-month and year-to-year Atlantic basin hurricane activity," he said.
Gray does not forecast the probability of hurricanes making landfall in the Caribbean, but he said there is a 68 percent chance of a major Atlantic hurricane hitting somewhere along the U.S. mainland coastline in 2003. For the East Coast and all of Florida up to the Florida Panhandle, he puts the probability at 48 percent. For the Gulf Coast, from the Florida Panhandle west to Brownsville, Texas, he makes it 38 percent.
"With such a large coastal population growth in recent decades, it is inevitable that we will see hurricane-spawned destruction in coming years on a scale many times greater than what we have seen in the past," Gray said.
He and his team will update their 2003 forecast in early April, the end of May, early August and early September. The official hurricane season runs June 1 through Nov. 3, but hurricanes can hit at any time of the year.
For more information on the research by Gray and his team, visit the Colorado State University Tropical Meteorology Project Web site.
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