Perhaps the biggest wild card in the response to last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the threat of a major hurricane. The Gulf is a locus for major tropical storms (remember a little downpour called Katrina?), and any time a large storm even threatened the area of water near the spill—where complex operations to shut the blown well were being carried out—the entire project had to be halted for days. Even more threatening was the possibility of a hurricane making landfall in southern Louisiana, where the oil was washing up in thick layers. Beyond wrecking any attempt at clean up, a storm could have picked up oily water and deposited it inland, making a muck of New Orleans and bringing a new meaning to the Crescent City’s favorite drink.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen—but not because the 2010 hurricane season was a quiet one. The season was extremely active, with tied for the third-highest number of names storms, with 1887 and 1995, of which 12 became hurricanes, the most since 1969. Yet, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put it, the 2010 season was a “gentle giant.” Yet relatively few of those storms reached land—at least in the U.S.—with many of them forming in the Atlantic before turning out to sea. The damage in lives and property was relatively limited, serving as a reminder that a natural disaster requires the collision of nature and human capital.
(More on Time.com: See photos of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S.)
We might not be that lucky with this summer’s Atlantic hurricane season, which begins today. The National Hurricane Center in Miami is predicting a busier than normal season, with as many as 18 named tropical storms—three to six of which could be major hurricanes. (In a normal year—although, in the Anthropocene, normal is up for grabs—there are 10 tropical storms and two major hurricanes, with winds exceeding 110 mph.) And we’re not like to get off as easy as we did last summer. Said AccuWeather.com hurricane forecaster Paul Pastelok:
It looks like we’re going to have more impact on the mainland of the U.S. coming up this year compared to last year. We had a lot of storms last year, but not a lot of impact [on the U.S.].
The government’s predictions were seconded by a team of researchers at Colorado State University, who predicted five major hurricanes this summer, with a 72% chance that one would hit the U.S. (Download a PDF of the team’s analysis here.) But these predictions aren’t written in stone—because 2011 is neither a strong El Nino or La Nina year, it’s harder for forecasters to know exactly how storm systems will react. But the last time El Nino and La Nina were essentially neutral was 2005—the year Hurricane Katrina and Rita destroyed the Gulf Coast. From AccuWeather.com senior meteorologist Dan Kottlowski:
Currently, right now we still are in a La Niña scenario, but it is starting to weaken. The signal is starting to show some signs of going neutral. That could have an impact on the westerly wind component down in the tropical Atlantic as well as the Caribbean. Stronger westerlies would prohibit major storms or a lot of storms, so it is a critical factor.
Then, of course, there’s climate change—but let’s deal with that later. (I’m sure we will.) What’s needed most immediately is hurricane preparation—and the National Hurricane Center has a great web page that explains what coastal residents need to do to get ready for the season. And if you’re curious, here’s a list of the planned names for 2011’s storms, from Arlene to Whitney. Personally, I’m worried about Hurricane Ophelia. “Too much of water, hast thou, Ophelia.” Let’s hope not.
See pictures of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
More from TIME:
Can Hurricanes Cause Climate Change?
Studies Predict Fewer But Stronger Hurricanes