(5 p.m. EDT) -- The jumpstart to this year's Atlantic Hurricane Season -- Tropical Storm Alberto swirled to life some two weeks before the official June 1 kickoff -- may not portend a rough go for Caribbean cruisers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its preseason predictions Thursday, forecasting that the six-month storm season will be "near-normal."
NOAA's Climate Prediction Center calls for nine to 15 named storms in 2012; a system is named when maximum sustained winds reach 39 miles per hour, the threshold for tropical storm status. Four to eight of the named storms could become hurricanes (winds of 74 miles per hour or more), and of the hurricanes, up to three could become major storms (winds of 111 miles per hour or more). Last year's busy season featured 19 named storms (seven hurricanes, four of which were major), which sent scores of cruise ships scrambling and kept numerous Caribbean ports on the defensive.
The seasonal average, based on data collected by NOAA from 1981 to 2010, is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
According to NOAA, the prediction -- which it says has a 70 percent likelihood of being realized -- is being driven by several climatic factors. Factors encouraging an active season include ocean and atmospheric conditions, which have been conducive to active hurricane seasons since 1995, and warm sea surface temperatures in the Caribbean Sea and tropical Atlantic. On the flipside, La Nina, which could develop in the equatorial Pacific in the late summer, could impact the Atlantic season by promoting elevated wind shear. (Higher wind shear can limit storm intensification.)
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, where only a few cruise ships are stationed, NOAA prognosticators also call for near normality. Seasonal hurricane forecasters estimate a 70 percent chance of 12 to 18 named storms, which includes five to nine hurricanes (two to five of which are expected to become major hurricanes). An average Eastern Pacific hurricane season, which runs from May 15 to November 30, produces 15 named storms, with eight becoming hurricanes and four becoming major hurricanes. The second named storm of the season, Bud, is currently swirling off the coast of southwestern Mexico.
A few key things for cruisers to keep in mind for the upcoming season: Peak periods vary geographically; in the Eastern Caribbean and along the U.S. East Coast, the season tends to be busiest between mid-August and mid-September. In the Western Caribbean, it picks up in mid-September and stretches into early November. However, you're almost guaranteed to find a named storm somewhere on September 10, which is historically the most active day of the season.
Amid a season riddled by variables and unknowns, there is one metaphysical certainty: Cruise Critic's Hurricane Zone will keep you updated on storm-season cruising all along the way.
--by Dan Askin, Senior Editor