The threat of an above-average 2010 Atlantic hurricane season has heightened over the past month and it now promises to be "a hell of a year,'' a leading U.S. forecaster said Wednesday.
William Gray, the hurricane forecast pioneer who founded Colorado State University's respected storm research team, said CSU would ramp up its predictions for the 2010 season in a report due out on June 2.
"The numbers are going to go up quite high,'' Gray said. ''This looks like a hell of a year.''
A higher forecast raises the prospect the vulnerable U.S. Gulf Coast may see a repeat of the 2005 season when a record 28 storms formed, which killed nearly 4,000 people and caused an estimated $130 billion in total damages.
The list included hurricanes Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, Rita which plowed into southern Louisiana, and Wilma, the most intense storm recorded in the Atlantic basin with peak winds of 185 miles per hour (295 kph).
Gray, who spoke on the sidelines of a regional hurricane conference, declined to specify the number of storms CSU will forecast in its outlook next week.
In its previous forecast, released on April 7, CSU had projected the season would produce an above-average eight hurricanes, four of which could be major.
In 2005, there were seven major hurricanes.
In its April 7 forecast, CSU also said the six-month season beginning on June 1 would likely produce 15 named tropical storms. An average Atlantic season has about 10 tropical storms, of which six become hurricanes.
Major hurricanes pack powerful sustained winds of at least 111 miles per hour .
Gray and Phil Klotzbach, lead forecaster with the Colorado State team, both told Reuters that forecast models showing a recent shift in wind patterns and warm tropical Atlantic waters had reinforced the likelihood that a busy hurricane season was on its way.
They referred specifically to reduced wind shear probabilities due to the dissipation of the El Nino weather phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean.
"El Nino died pretty quickly over the past couple of months,'' Klotzbach said.
An El Nino would normally allow wind sheer to seep into the Atlantic, disrupting storm formation and pushing embryonic hurricanes out to sea far from the oil-rig rich Gulf and the U.S. mainland.
Wind shear -- caused by a clash between prevailing upper-levels winds out of the west and lower-level easterly winds out of Africa -- can tear apart hurricanes or break up their circulation.
"Everything is setting up as a very active season,'' Gray said.
STORMS MAY PUSH OIL FROM SPILL INLAND
Both Gray and Klotzbach said there were too many uncertainties about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to make any predictions about how it might come into play in the upcoming storm season.
But they were dismissive of claims the oil slick could keep storms from gathering strength and said a powerful cyclone, particularly if it comes out of the western portion of the Gulf, could propel large quantities of oil ashore in the northern Gulf.
"The counter-clockwise circulation could push oil inland, into the inland waterways, and cause a lot of problems,'' Klotzbach said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Craig Fugate, who spoke at the same hurricane conference in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, seemed exasperated by public attention to the oil spill as another potentially deadly hurricane season looms over the Caribbean and the U.S. Atlantic seaboard.
"It concerns me that we're talking about the oil spill and we're not talking about hurricane season,'' Fugate told reporters.
"Given the vulnerability of many of our coastal communities to a major landfalling hurricane, a failure to prepare for that will negate any of the work that's been done to deal with the impacts of the oil spill,'' he said.
"Yes there's an oil spill, yes it's devastating, and yes it has significant impacts to our coastline, to our tourism and to the environment. But do not confuse that with the deadly power of a major hurricane.'' he said.