Hurricanes: The Danger Hasn’t Passed

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Who do you think is going to be the Republican nominee for president in 2012? Sarah Palin? Mike Huckabee? Mitt Romney?

It’s kind of a ridiculous question, actually, since almost anything could happen in the 18 months until the primaries begin. One of the candidates could, for example, be caught in an embarrassing scandal—or even a perceived scandal. It happened to Joe Biden back in 1987 . But that hasn’t stopped pundits from speculating and pollsters from asking—because it’s an important question, even if the answers are pretty much useless.

Hurricane Alex on June 30, 2010 (Credit: NOAA)

The same sort of thing happens with hurricanes.

Last winter, the experts began projecting what the current season would look like. The answer back then: pretty average, which means they expected about six or so hurricanes. But then, in May, a new crop of predictions came out—and suddenly, forecasters were talking about a hurricane season more like 2005, the year that included Katrina.

The change happened because the El Niño current in the Pacific Ocean, which tends to tamp down hurricanes by altering wind patterns, had weakened unexpectedly fast, replaced by its alter ego, La Niña. Like a potential candidate caught behaving badly, that reshuffled everything, leading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to boost its forecast to 8 to 14 hurricanes, of which 3 to 7 could be major hurricanes of category 3, 4 or 5.

But the hurricane season started June 1, and so far we haven’t had many hurricanes. Has the candidate suddenly cleaned up his act?

Not likely: while the hurricane season technically goes from June through November, most of the action takes place from mid-August through mid-October. And just yesterday, the latest update from NOAA says that conditions haven’t changed, and while the new forecast is slightly down for the season overall, it’s not down by that much: we can still expect 8 to 12 hurricanes, 4 to 6 of which could be major.

None of this means we’ll necessarily see another Katrina. But major hurricanes can strike population centers no matter how active the entire season is. After all, Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992, occurred in a below average year. All it takes is one…

Still, if you like to play the odds, this would be a bad year to bet the U.S. is going to get through unscathed.