The 2009 Atlantic hurricane season will be fairly average with as many as seven hurricanes expected to form, U.S. government forecasters predicted Thursday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast nine to 14 named storms this season, with four to seven developing into hurricanes.
One to three could be major ones of Category 3 or higher with winds above 110 miles per hour, the agency said in its annual forecast.
Last year was one of the most active seasons on record, with 16 tropical storms and eight hurricanes.
The hurricane season officially starts on June 1 and typically peaks between late August and mid-October. An average Atlantic hurricane season brings 11 tropical storms with six hurricanes, including two to three major hurricanes, NOAA said.
NOAA makes its preseason forecasts in a range rather than a specific number given by other forecasters. It also offered probabilities — a 50 percent chance of a near-normal season, a 25 percent chance of an above-normal season and 25 percent chance of a below-normal season.
“Global weather patterns are imposing a greater uncertainty in the 2009 hurricane season outlook than in recent years,” NOAA said in a statement.
U.S. weather forecasters, including private and university researchers, have predicted 2009 will be a less active hurricane season than a year ago.
The other forecasters have noted that sea surface temperatures in areas of the Atlantic Ocean where hurricanes form are cooler than in the recent past. Warm water fuels hurricanes, so cooler water could foreshadow fewer or less intense storms.
They also say a weak El Nino, the eastern Pacific warm-water phenomenon that tends to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity, could form in late summer.
Despite being off target in recent years, hurricane forecasts are closely watched by energy, insurance and commodities markets. Interest surged following damaging hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 that hammered Florida, the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas fields.
A record four major hurricanes hit the United States in 2005, including Katrina which killed around 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast and caused $80 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. (Editing by Jim Loney and Lisa Shumaker)
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