'Near-normal' hurricane season predicted

Hurricane season jumped the gun this year, with short-lived Tropical Storm Alberto spinning up off South Carolina and forecasters monitoring a mass of storms that had drenched South Florida for days.

That puts one tropical storm on the books before the six-month season "officially" begins on June 1 -- with an outside chance for two if the disorganized system that finally cleared the South Florida coast Thursday evening gets its act together in the coming days.

Fortunately, a fast start doesn't necessarily point to a hectic hurricane season. Federal forecasters on Thursday predicted a near-normal season ahead -- likely on the low side of average if an El Niño weather pattern develops but higher if it does not.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual pre-season forecast calls for a likely range of nine to 15 named storms, with four to eight becoming hurricanes. Of those, one to three are expected to turn into major storms. Since 1981,

an average season has produced 12 named storms with six hurricanes, three of them becoming major storms with Category 3 winds of 111 mph or higher.

Though the storm count might be down a bit from the hyperactive seasons of the past decade, forecasters pointed to Hurricane Andrew 20 years ago as evidence that it takes only one landfall to produce a disastrous hurricane season. Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane with 165 mph winds, caused $25.5 billion in damage when it raked South Miami-Dade on Aug. 24, 1992.

"Just because we predict a near-normal season doesn't mean anyone is off the hook at all," said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal forecaster for NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

Ocean and atmospheric factors have fueled increasing hurricane activity since 1995, including near-average temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Bell said. But the potential formation of El Niño is a wild card that has added uncertainty and widened the range of predicted storms, Bell said. That weather pattern, marked by warming Pacific Ocean temperatures, typically tends to quiet the tropics in both storm numbers and intensity -- in part by feeding upper-level wind that can weaken forming storms or sometimes rip them apart.