Officially, NOAA's National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center says that there is a 70 percent chance of having 9 to 14 named storms this year, of which four to seven could become hurricanes, including one to three major hurricanes (Category Three or higher, with winds of at least 110 miles per hour). Forecasters call for a 50 percent probability of a near-normal season, a 25 percent probability of an above-normal season and a 25 percent probability of a below-normal season.
NOAA's forecast is in line with earlier forecasts, including that of Colorado State University's weather guru Dr. William Gray, who in April predicted 12 named storms, including six hurricanes, two of which will be major storms.
But just how reliable is NOAA when it comes to forecasting? Read on.
How Predictions are Made
First off, let's consider the qualifiers. The predictions are offered in percentages of probability and wide ranges -- a 7 in 10 chance of having 9 to 14 storms. The significant margin of error has meant that the NOAA has been generally accurate over the last several seasons. Last year NOAA predicted a strong chance (65 percent) of an "above normal" season with 12 to 16 named storms; of these, 6 to 9 were expected to become hurricanes, with 2 to 5 major hurricanes. In the end, we saw 16 named Atlantic storms, with eight hurricanes, five of them major -- all within the ranges. And in 2007, the 15 named storms fell within the original estimate of 13 to 17.
In 2005, however, predictions were wildly off. NOAA called for a 70 percent chance of an above normal season, with 12 to 15 named storms. CSU's much-regarded Dr. Gray similarly predicted 13 named storms. When the season ended, there were 27 named storms, including Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast killing some 1,500 people.
Second, NOAA has noted in this year's report that "global weather patterns are imposing a greater uncertainty in the 2009 hurricane season outlook than in recent years." One such consideration is the formation of a weak El Nino, the eastern Pacific warm-water phenomenon experts believe tends to suppress Atlantic hurricane season activity. In fact, the mildness of the 2006 season was attributed to El Nino. (That year, the number and severity of actual hurricanes fell short of forecasters' expectations, prompting them to revise their predictions mid-season.)
Conversely, NOAA reports that supporting more activity this season are conditions associated with the ongoing high-activity era that began in 1995, which include enhanced rainfall over West Africa, warmer Atlantic waters and reduced wind shear.
Quick 2008 Recap
Overall, the 2009 season is expected to be somewhat less turbulent for cruise travelers and Caribbean ports than last year. 2008 featured 16 named storms and 8 hurricanes, and established a number of quirky records, including most storms to make landfall in the U.S. (six), longest-lived July storm (Bertha was a tropical cyclone for 17 days) and the only storm on record to make landfall four times in the state of Florida (Fay).
Interestingly, it was the Category Two Hurricane Ike, not even considered a "major" hurricane, that caused the most damage in 2008, devastating Grand Turk and then Galveston as it made its way west through the Caribbean.
Click here for a full recap of the 2008 season.
What You Need to Know
Given the margin of error on the predictions, it's not surprising that above all NOAA urges preparedness. We do, too (though as a matter of course, cruise ships always steer well clear of major storm systems). Read on for more facts and figures from Cruise Critic's hurricane team:
The season officially runs from June 1 through November 30, with the peak falling between mid-August and late October -- prepare to be flexible if booking cruises in the Caribbean or along the Atlantic. Itineraries could change suddenly (and cruise lines are not obligated to compensate passengers when ports are canceled due to weather).
May 25 - 31 is National Hurricane Preparedness Week, and forecasters and emergency officials are urging people to make preparations now. For people who live in East and Gulf coastal areas, as well as cruise regions such as the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Bahamas, this means having a plan for dealing with storm surges, high winds, tornadoes and flooding. Travelers calling at or departing from these areas should be doubly aware of potential itinerary changes.
Also be aware that disruption could extend beyond missing a port or two. In the past, hurricanes struck Florida's coast and the Gulf Coast, and cruises were canceled, abbreviated or even lengthened (when ships couldn't come in from the sea).
Where do you get cruise updates during hurricane season? Vote in our poll!
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor