The tropical Atlantic could muster as many as 16 named storms this hurricane season according to a key forecast released Thursday ahead of the official June 1 start date.
Hurricane experts at the federal Climate Prediction Center are calling for tropical activity to be near normal to above normal, noting that uncertainty remains about whether a storm-thwarting El Niño will develop in the fall.
The forecast comes as the atmosphere is already brewing up something near the Yucatan Peninsula. An area of low pressure moving slowly into the Gulf of Mexico was given a 90 percent chance of tropical development Thursday, with National Hurricane Center forecasters expecting a tropical or subtropical depression to form late Saturday.
If the system strengthens to a tropical storm, it would be named Alberto. Most forecast models show the system moving ashore in an area from Florida’s Panhandle to eastern Louisiana.
“The main impacts for South Florida will be showers and thunderstorms that could mean some local flooding,” said Accuweather senior meteorologist Ken Clark. “When you have a disorganized system like this, even if it becomes a tropical storm, its influence will be pretty wide.”
Because Palm Beach County will be on the more turbulent east side of the disturbance, it can expect heavier rainfall of up to 3.3 inches through Sunday morning and the possibility of thunderstorms with isolated tornadoes Saturday and Sunday. The South Florida Water Management District is forecasting higher rain amounts with as much as 3 inches per day falling in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
“It won’t be the best Memorial Day weekend,” Clark said.
Early tropical systems are not an indicator of a busy hurricane season, which the Climate Prediction Center believes will have 10 to 16 named storms, five to nine hurricanes and up to four major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher.
An average hurricane season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.
The hyperactive 2017 storm season produced 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes.
Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said he’s not expecting a repeat of the 2017 storm season but that five to nine hurricanes is “quite a few hurricanes.”
“There is no climate signature saying that it will be extremely active or inactive,” Bell said. “That still means a lot of storms forming in the Atlantic.”
Bell said the seasonal forecast was based on two factors: the chance of a weak El Niño forming in the fall and near average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
“Right now, if El Niño does not form, and the Atlantic sea-surface temperatures warm up, we could certainly see the seasonal activity near the higher end of the predicted ranges,” Bell said.
At least 20 research groups, private companies and universities churn out annual hurricane forecasts, including the University of Arizona, The Weather Company and Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center.
Thursday’s forecast is similar to ones made by earlier this year by the Pennsylvania-based Accuweather and Colorado State University, which called for slightly more active seasons than normal.
Accuweather and CSU also try to predict storm landfalls. This season, Accuweather is forecasting three to four named storms will hit the U.S., while CSU said there is a 92-percent chance at least one hurricane will make a U.S. landfall. The 100-year average for at least one landfalling hurricane is 84 percent.
Last year, six named storms hit the continental U.S. That included tropical storms Cindy, Emily and Philippe, and hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Nate. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, which is still recovering as the 2018 season approaches.
Harvey, Irma and Maria are in the top 5 costliest hurricanes on record.
“With the possibility of a more active season, the entire region around the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic are at an increased risk,” Bell said. “We know certain areas are compromised from last year’s storms, and that makes hurricane preparedness more important this year.”