Calamitous 2005 Hurricane Season Likely to Repeat Next Year

WASHINGTON, DC, November 30, 2005 (ENS) - The 2005 Atlantic Ocean hurricane season comes to an end today after smashing records for the largest number and most severe storms in history. Weather officials are predicting that greater than average hurricane activity will pound vulnerable Atlantic and Caribbean coastal areas for the next decade, but they say not the result of global warming.

The 2005 season included 26 named storms, including 13 hurricanes in which seven were major, classed as Category 3 or higher.

“This hurricane season shattered records that have stood for decades – most named storms, most hurricanes and most Category 5 storms,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


Hurricane Katrina (Photo courtesy NOAA)
One hurricane stood out as the biggest monster of all. Hurricane Katrina which destroyed the Gulf Coast on August 29 was the deadliest hurricane to strike the United States since 1928. At least 1,300 deaths are blamed on Katrina, and officials say the count is still likely to rise.

“Arguably, it was the most devastating hurricane season the country has experienced in modern times," Lautenbacher said at a news conference in Washington.

Just as officials prepared to announce the record on Tuesday morning, a 26th storm reached the 39 mile per hour (62.7 kilometer per hour) wind speed that classifies a weather system as a tropical storm.

The new storm is called Epsilon, a name that marks another record for the 2005 season. It is the first time the National Hurricane Center ever has used letters of the Greek alphabet for storm names, having exhausted all the names on the pre-determined alphabetical list.

Weather officials say their analysis shows that Atlantic Ocean storm activity is now in what they call a "multi-decadal cycle" that can last 20 to 30 years or even longer.

During this cycle an inter-related set of key atmospheric and oceanic conditions are just right to brew up monster storms between Africa and the Caribbean Sea during the peak months of the season, August through October.

The ocean water is warmer than normal, the wind shear is low, the winds coming off West Africa are just right to set a tropical cyclone in motion.

NOAA research shows that the tropical multi-decadal signal is causing the increased Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995, and "is not related to greenhouse warming," the agency said.

Yet global warming has raised sea surface temperatures, and hurricanes need warm ocean waters to strengthen and sustain them. Hurricanes do not form unless water temperatures are at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit - hot enough to create atmospheric convection that casts moisture 10 miles up into the atmosphere.


Waves break in the open Atlantic Ocean. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Ocean waters were generally two to three degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average during the 2005 season, which favored stronger hurricanes.

"Evidence of this active cycle was demonstrated this year as the Atlantic Basin produced the equivalent of more than two entire hurricane seasons over the course of one. Because we are in an active hurricane era, it's important to recognize that with a greater number of hurricanes comes increasing odds of one striking land," said retired Air Force Brigadier General David Johnson, director of the National Weather Service.

“Because we’re 11 years into an active hurricane era,” said Jerry Bell, lead meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, “it’s reasonable to expect ongoing high levels of hurricane activity for many years to come, and importantly, ongoing high levels of hurricane landfalls for the next decade and perhaps more.”

The prospect that greater than average hurricane activity will pound vulnerable Atlantic and Caribbean coastal areas for years to come makes a joint international scientific project all the more urgent, says Lautenbacher.

More than 40 nations and 25 international organizations are working to establish a Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) as a center of climatic and environmental data from the entire planet to form the basis for better understanding and predicting how Earth functions as a single system.

“This total global coverage of weather information and service information will allow us in the future to be able to build better models and better predictions,” said Lautenbacher, “and allow us to tell you more accurately what will happen and will give you much longer warning times.”

In recent years, NOAA and the National Weather Service have made progress in predicting the direction that a hurricane might take and where it will come ashore.

“We have gone from a 300 to 400 mile (483 to 648 kilometer) error track to an error track in the area of 25 miles to 30 miles (40.2 to 48.2 kilometers), Lautenbacher said of recent improvements in forecasting capability.


Three months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, homes like this one in Gulfport, Mississippi are still waiting for repair or demolition. (Photo by Patsy Lynch courtesy FEMA)
The NOAA administrator’s next priority for improvement will be in gauging the intensity of storms, acquiring the capability to tell a given city that the storm bearing down will be a minor blow or a major killer.

“This issue of being able to determine that intensity to a sufficient level in advance to get to people, will make a difference in our ability to move people in and out of hazard areas,” Lautenbacher said.

NOAA advises the residents of areas prone to hurricanes to use the off season to develop an emergency plan for what they will do when a killer storm blows through.

"The battle against the hurricane season is won during the off season," said Max Mayfield, director of the NOAA National Hurricane Center. "Winter and spring is the time to conduct hurricane preparations, such as stocking supplies, assembling a safety kit that includes a NOAA Weather Radio and preparing an evacuation plan."