TAMPA — Climate change may be triggering an evolution in hurricanes, with some researchers predicting the violent storms could move farther north, out of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, where they have threatened coastlines for centuries.
Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean begins Monday, and forecasters are predicting a relatively quiet season. They say three hurricanes are expected over the next six months, and only one will turn into a major hurricane.
Florida hasn’t been hit by a hurricane in a decade, and researchers are increasingly pointing to climate change as a potential factor.
There is a consensus among atmospheric researchers studying the connection between global warming and hurricanes that centuries- old patterns may be shifting, said Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“There are a few things we agree on,” he said, “and a few things we don’t know much about.”
He said researchers generally agree that the frequency of high-intensity storms, Category 3, 4 and 5, will increase as the planet warms. “By how much? There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
The second generally accepted theory is that with rising sea levels, storm surge could become more of a threat than wind. “The sea level is going up and will continue to go up,” he said.
Rain also is expected to increase during hurricanes, he said. “It’s in widespread agreement that as you warm the climate, hurricanes will rain a lot more.”
Other theories of how climate change affects hurricane activity are still being researched, he said, and there is some disagreement among scientists. One is the frequency of less intense hurricanes, the Category 1 and 2 storms.
“We don’t know if that will go up or down, but it doesn’t really matter,” Emanuel said. “Eighty percent of the damage done by hurricanes over the past 50 years was done by major storms anyway.”
One emerging theory is that hurricanes appear to be reaching peak intensity farther north, he said. Tropical cyclones around the globe are reaching peak intensity closer to the poles, he said, meaning in the Northern Hemisphere, farther north and in the Southern Hemisphere, farther south.
What this means for the Atlantic hurricanes is that they are gathering strength farther north over open water and could increasingly take aim at targets north of Florida, from the Mid-Atlantic to New York and Massachusetts.
“That means that the Caribbean may see a decline in hurricanes,” Emanuel said.
This year, meteorologists expect only one major hurricane to form in the Atlantic basin between June 1 and Nov. 30, the Atlantic hurricane season. The experts base their predictions on a moderately strong El Niño in the Pacific Ocean and cooler- than-normal temperatures of the tropical Atlantic.
The National Hurricane Center will issue its official prediction Wednesday, though other weather prognosticators have said all indications point to a hurricane season less active than the historical norm.
Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project made its educated guesses in April.
“We anticipate that the 2015 Atlantic basin hurricane season will be one of the least active seasons since the middle of the 20th century,” said the project’s website. “It appears quite likely that an El Niño of at least moderate strength will develop this summer and fall. The tropical and subtropical Atlantic are also quite cool at present.
“We anticipate a below- average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the United States coastline and in the Caribbean.”
The project’s predictions say there likely will be seven named storms forming this year, with just a 15 percent chance of a hurricane hitting anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico coast.
Hurricane managers warn against complacency.
“I’ve seen all the headlines; that it will be a slow season, a quiet season, even some said it will be a boring season,” said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “It’s only slow, quiet and boring if you don’t get hit. If you do get hit, it’s anything but a slow, quiet and boring season.”
He said that 1992 was considered a slow season. That is until Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, swept over South Florida, causing billions of dollars in damage.
In 1983, there were only four named storms, but one, Category 3 Hurricane Alicia, caused extensive damage in Houston. Hurricane Betsy cut across Florida in 1965 before causing widespread damage in Louisiana in what was considered a below-average year.
“The other side of the coin was in 2010, when a dozen hurricanes formed and none hit the United States,” Feltgen said. “It doesn’t matter how many storms are floating around out there; you can get hit in slow years, and you may not get hit in busy years.”
People should prepare, he said, as if they are in a hurricane’s sights.
“Florida is in its 10th year without being hit by a hurricane with any strength,” Feltgen said. “That’s a remarkable streak. The last hurricane was Wilma in 2005. Since then 3 million people have moved to Florida. That’s 3 million people who have never experienced a hurricane.”
Lack of experience, complacency and denial is a triple threat.
“You’ve got to have a hurricane plan in place,” Feltgen said. “If you’ve got a plan in place, you will be a hurricane survivor. If you don’t have a plan in place, you will be a hurricane victim.”
If a storm does hit Florida over the next six months, the state is ready to render aid, at least pay to fix some of the damage.
Because it’s been 10 years since a hurricane hit the state, emergency fund coffers have been bumped up.
In 1993, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund was created. Over the past 10 years, it has been making money and not spending any.
Estimates from last year’s audit show nearly $13 billion is available for the Atlantic hurricane season.
Emergency managers in Florida are preparing for the worst, like they do at the outset of every season. Across the state this past week, county emergency management officials participated in a statewide hurricane drill to test systems and personnel.
“We’ve updated all of our plans and tested some systems out,” said Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Preston Cook. “We’re going to use social media more this year. We have a robust team that will be doing that. We also have an enhanced county website for folks to surf and get information about stuff going on in the county.”
The prediction that 2015 may be a slow hurricane season means nothing, he said.
“You have to be ready,” he said. “It only takes one to be devastated.”