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December Hurricane*

Posted 12/4/2003 10:36 PM Updated 12/4/2003 10:46 PM

The season's over, but tropical storm didn't get memo

By Patrick O'Driscoll, USA TODAY

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The surprise appearance Thursday of Tropical Storm Odette — the first December storm ever recorded in the Caribbean — makes 2003 an above-normal year for tropical weather.

Today, one of the nation's top hurricane forecasters predicts an unusually active season for next year, too.

Odette is the 15th tropical weather system large enough — with winds 39 mph or higher — to get a name this year. Such storms almost never occur this late in the year. That's because they need warmer water to grow. Tropical storm season typically runs from June through November.

Scientists at Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project forecast 13 named storms in the Atlantic basin in 2004.

In its 21st annual forecast, released today, the project team led by hurricane scientist William Gray predicts seven hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or more), three of them major (winds 111 mph or more).

Gray's researchers also predict the hurricanes will be more damaging. They expect a 15% higher-than-normal "hurricane destruction potential" and forecast a 68% chance that one of those major hurricanes will hit the U.S. coast. That's a 30% higher probability than normal.

If a major hurricane does hit land, it will be the first in a half-decade for the nation's hurricane coast, where 84 million people live.

Since 1995, the Atlantic has seen 32 major hurricanes. But just three have reached U.S. shores: Opal in 1995, Fran in 1996 and Bret in 1999. By comparison, 16 of 63 major storms in the Atlantic from 1944 to 1961 hit the USA.

Hurricanes such as Floyd in 1999 and Isabel this year weakened before they struck land but still caused major damage.

But Gray says the relative good luck won't last. He predicts that more hurricanes will hit the coasts and "hurricane-spawned destruction in coming decades on a scale many times greater" than before.

Gray attributes the lack of landfalls lately to two atmospheric phenomena that have, in effect, blocked or steered hurricanes north as they approached the East Coast: a low-pressure system over the coast and weaker-than-normal influence from a "Bermuda high" system over the western Atlantic.

In a normal year, the Atlantic basin — which includes the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico — would see nine or 10 named tropical storms, about six of them hurricanes. On average, two of those become major hurricanes.

Phil Klotzbach, one of Gray's research associates, says the USA "has entered a new era of enhanced major hurricane activity."

He says the team expects this "active tropical" era to run for another two to three decades.

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