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Hurricane Florence as seen from the International Space Station as a Category 1 storm as it was making landfall last year near Wrightsville Beach, N.C. NASA/Provided

The El Niño winds that helped stomp down potential hurricanes so far this year are dying, federal forecasters said Thursday.

Storms are about to ramp up.

In the mid-season update to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration annual predictions, forecasters called for five to nine hurricanes, with two to four of them becoming devastatingly powerful. That's among anywhere from 10 to 17 named storms overall.

So take a deep breath. The peak weeks of the hurricane season, from mid-August to early October, are about to arrive. The hurricane-brewing seas are becoming as hot as they will be all year.

The season will be more active than what is considered normal, the NOAA said. That's the season that so far has produced only one hurricane: Barry, and one sub-tropical storm, Andrea. El Niño is a Pacific Ocean warming, which stirs winds that tend to disrupt hurricanes in the Atlantic.

Mid-season predictions last August called for a quieter year. Then came Hurricane Florence. Then Hurricane Michael. Florence alone did $607 million in damage in South Carolina. All in all, 16 storms formed, and eight became hurricanes.

“El Niño typically suppresses Atlantic hurricane activity, but now that it’s gone, we could see a busier season ahead,” said Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Also, a multidecadal climate pattern now in place that tends to create more hurricanes makes it more likely for tropical storms to form.

But keep the NOAA forecast in perspective.

"We've seen (hurricane-forming) strong tropical waves streaming off Africa in the last few days, but they have faced hostile weather conditions in the Atlantic. We will have to see how weather patterns evolve over the coming weeks," said meteorologist Bob Henson with the forecasting company Weather Underground.

Closer to South Carolina, hurricane shearing winds have helped protect the coast. They look to remain in place for at least the next week or two, said Charleston-based meteorologist Shea Gibson, with the forecasting company WeatherFlow. 

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.


But the waters are very warm off the coast and as storms start to kick up in the tropical Atlantic, "we will also need to watch for any stalling cold fronts that spin up low pressures," he said. Those pressure systems can spin up tropical storms.

The Tropical Meteorology Project, the dean of computer forecast predictions, continues to call for a season closer to what's considered normal, with six hurricanes, two becoming devastatingly powerful, and 14 named storms overall.

Phil Klotzbach, the project's lead scientist, said the project forecast doesn't call for El Niño to die down as much as the NOAA forecast does. 

"There is still near record warmth in the central tropical Pacific. I think that warmth may cause slightly more shear over the Caribbean and MDR (tropical Atlantic) than I suspect NOAA is anticipating," he said. "All in all, I’d say our forecasts are similar, but there’s certainly room for a little scientific disagreement on the details."

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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