Hurricane season finally over

CHICAGO – Hurricane forecasters welcomed the approach of December and the official end of the 2005 hurricane season – the worst ever recorded in the Atlantic – then turned immediately to preparations for next year and a dire warning to the public Tuesday:

So far, 2006 in the Atlantic is shaping up to be every bit as bad.

At a news conference in Miami and Washington, D.C., officials at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration described the hyperactive 2005 hurricane season, which closes today, as essentially two full seasons crammed into one.

NOAA officials dismissed possible connections to global warming from greenhouse gas emissions as a cause for 2005’s stormy weather. Instead, they blamed the year’s severity on a broad cycle in which equatorial seas warm and cool every 25 to 30 years, as they have since at least 1870.

The current cycle of warming Atlantic water and stormier weather began in 1995, said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead hurricane forecaster. It was made worse this year because trade winds that tear hurricanes apart were absent, he said.

The stagnant atmosphere allowed conditions for severe storms to form earlier in 2005 than in the past, while strong winds off North Africa pushed storms across the Atlantic more often. They arrived in the superheated Gulf of Mexico, fueling storms into explosive potency.

“I would like to be able to tell you that next year will be calmer, but I can’t,” said NOAA administrator and retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr.

The best bet would be for the Pacific to warm up off the coast of Peru, forming an El Nino weather pattern that would stifle the growth of Atlantic hurricanes. But no such pattern is forming.

“What we know from our current climate patterns is that next year could be just as active as this year,” Lautenbacher said.

In 2005, the Atlantic saw 26 named storms, 13 of which grew into hurricanes, a first since records on hurricanes have been kept. Of those, seven were severe, with sustained winds over 111 miles an hour.

Four severe hurricanes hit the United States, and three of 2005’s storms were destructive Category 5 hurricanes, with winds stronger than 156 mph.

As still another measure of how active the season was, so many big storms burst to life that weather officials went through their list of English names and had to resort to using the Greek alphabet – a first since they began naming storms a half-century ago.

The warmer-than-average ocean remains so fertile that Tropical Storm Epsilon chugged to life in mid-Atlantic Tuesday, only 90 minutes before the news conference was called, said National Weather Service director David L. Johnson. More tropical storms were possible this year.

But as NOAA officials on Tuesday strung superlatives together to describe a season surpassing their worst predictions, weather scientists had already started reviewing studies from 2005 that marked an enormous departure from past scientific efforts.

For years, hurricane researchers sought to predict storm paths with greater accuracy. But beginning with the 2005 season, NOAA wanted to know why Atlantic hurricanes had become so intense, and why there have been so many.

The 2005 season could hardly have provided a more violently instructive laboratory:

By some measures, Hurricane Wilma was the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, with air pressures dropping so suddenly and so low they could have left a man winded. Katrina will surely be a storm that haunts memories and has far-reaching consequences.

More than 465,000 people sought refuge in temporary shelters this year, 410,000 homes were destroyed or left uninhabitable, and insured damages from the four hurricanes to hit the United States – Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma – topped $46 billion and claimed at least 1,458 lives.

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