Want the insider tip on what will happen during the hurricane season that officially starts June 1?

This year, it's anybody's guess.

"Uncertainty is huge right now," said Phil Klotzbach, the lead scientist for the storm prediction benchmark Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University.

"Mixed signals is an excellent way to summarize how climate conditions look right now," he said. 

That's how to view the federal Climate Prediction Center seasonal predictions that were released Thursday, calling for a "near normal" season.

The center's staff suggests nine to 15 named storms with four to eight becoming hurricanes. Two to four of those storms could become major hurricanes with winds stronger than 110 mph.

The prediction joins at least a half-dozen academic or commercial forecasts released so far that call for about the same thing: a near average season.

But "average" predictions are just hedging the forecasting bets.

"The only clear hint as to the character of this year's season is the sea surface temperature anomaly pattern from the west coast of Africa to our coast," said Mark Malsick, severe weather liaison for the S.C. Climate Office. 

For clarity: Temperatures off Africa, where the warmth powers up hurricanes, are running cooler than usual. Temperatures in seas off the Southeast states, which tend to run cooler than the tropics, are currently running warmer.

That deviation also was in place from August through September in 2018 when three hurricanes formed, including Florence, which flooded the Carolinas.

Hurricane Michael, which devastated beach towns in the Florida panhandle, formed Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, the waters just offshore South Carolina are warm, and that can stir up tropical storms and hurricanes closer to home.

Temperatures largely are now higher than 80 degrees, said Shea Gibson, a Charleston-based meteorologist for the private forecasting company WeatherFlow.

That's considered the pivot point for when the water is hot enough to breed tropical storms — and worse.

Meanwhile, the El Nino, a Pacific Ocean warming, which stirs winds that tend to disrupt hurricanes in the Atlantic, was earlier predicted to emerge strongly. Instead, it's weak.

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.


And El Nino patterns are also no sure bet.

"El Nino events tend to cut down on Atlantic hurricane activity," said meteorologist Jeff Masters, with the private forecasting company Weather Underground.

"However, we always need to keep in mind that 2004 — a very active year, with six land-falling U.S. hurricanes, including three major hurricanes — was an El Nino year, so not all El Nino years follow that convention," Masters said.

Subtropical storm Andrea formed offshore this spring before the June 1 season opening, but that's not a sign of things to come. An early storm has emerged every year since 2014, and how threatening those seasons became varied widely.

Or, as National Hurricane Center specialist Eric Blake said in a recent tweet, "It is the nature of the beast that similar climate conditions can produce different seasons."

In other words, the best read on the season that runs through November might belong to Malsick of the Climate Office:

"Lacking any long-range forecast tools with any skills, day to day vigilance is required until the snow flies," he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

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