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Date of Issue: August 11, 2005

Sandscript

Storm stories: Déjà vu all over again this year, but worse?

Could last year's robust hurricane season be only a precurser for things to come?

If Dr. William Gray is correct, the answer is "yes indeed."

Gray, a Colorado State University meteorologist who has been issuing forecasts for the Atlantic Ocean hurricane season for more than 25 years, has come out with his mid-season prediction.

It's not pretty.

"Information obtained through July 2005 indicates that the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season will be an extremely active one," Gray posted on the Internet late last week. "We estimate that 2005 will have about 20 named storms (average is 9.6), 10 hurricanes (average is 5.9), and six intense hurricanes (average is 2.3)."

He also said "The probability of U.S. major hurricane landfall is estimated to be well above the long-period average. This year is expected to continue the past-decade trend of above-average hurricane seasons."

Just what we need to hear, huh?

Besides a slew of scientific data collected globally, Gray and his team of researchers use a set of historical models to compile the forecasts. "We believe that the current active period is quite similar to the 1930s, where we had many active hurricane seasons, even though other features typically associated with active seasons in the 1950s and 1960s were not present."

You may remember reading about the "Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935," which struck the Florida Keys. More than 400 people were killed, the railroad line Henry Flagler was building from the mainland to Key West was washed away, and the storm was estimated to have had winds of 200-250 mph.

Gray said, "The 1930s were also a period of strong global warming similar to the global warming of the last decade. From the limited data available during the 1930s and '40s, we deduce that the Atlantic was quite warm, similar to conditions that we are presently experiencing. However, other features, such as strong easterly anomalies at upper levels in the tropical Atlantic which were present in the 1950s and 1960s, do not appear to have been present in the earlier period of the 1930s. We have seen a slight increase in tropical Atlantic easterly anomalies since 1995, but have yet to see the easterlies that were present in the earlier decades of the 1950s and '60s."

Gray has been a lone voice as naysayer regarding global warming and hurricanes. Simply put, he tends to pooh-pooh the global warming advocates. He addressed the matter in his posting last week.

"Many individuals have queried whether the unprecedented landfall of four destructive hurricanes in a seven-week period during August-September 2004 is related in any way to human-induced climate changes," he said. "There is no evidence that this is the case.

"If global warming were the cause of the increase in U.S. hurricane landfalls in 2004 and the overall increase in Atlantic basin major hurricane activity of the past 10 years, one would expect to see an increase in tropical cyclone activity in the other storm basins as well. This has not occurred.

"When tropical cyclones worldwide are summed, there has actually been a slight decrease since 1995. In addition, it has been well-documented that the measured global warming during the 25-year period of 1970-1994 was accompanied by a downturn in Atlantic basin hurricane activity over what was experienced during the 1930s through the '60s."

So what is causing all this heightened hurricane activity?

Gray attributes the major storm frequency to temperature changes in the North Atlantic. Warmer water, more storms, and the water has been warming in the past decade, he has discovered.

By the numbers:

Gray and his team have offered the following grim statistics for what we've got to look forward to in the next few months.

Probabilities for at least one major hurricane, Category 3 or more, making landfall on the U.S. coastline: 77 percent. Average for the past century is 52 percent.

Probabilities for the East Coast including all of Florida: 58 percent. Average is 31 percent.

Probabilities for the Gulf of Mexico coastline from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville, Texas: 44 percent. Average is 30 percent.

Here we go again.

Hurricanes hit our gas tanks

Oil production is such a shaky market that a hurricane that strikes the offshore oil drilling rigs in the northern Gulf of Mexico can produce global petroleum price fluctuations, according to a report in the New York Times last week.

When Hurricane Dennis came ashore July 10, it also swept through the oil-rich and oil-derrick covered offshore fields of the northern Gulf. It was big enough and strong enough that all 30,000 people who work on the rigs were evacuated and the flow of oil was reduced to less than a trickle - about 4 percent of average.

The world's largest semisubmersible oil rig was left tilting at a 20-degree angle and is not expected to be up and running for months at its potential of 250,000 gallons of crude a day.

To add to the problem, when Hurricane Emily came calling on Mexico a few days later, it spurred the same evacuation of that country's oil platforms with a corresponding reduction of oil flow.

And, as we all know, no oil means more pennies-per-gallon at the gas pumps.

Hurricane Ivan last year severely damaged 24 offshore platforms and 102 underwater pipelines, causing $2.7 billion in damage and stalling oil flow for six months. To bring it home a bit, oil prices on commodity markets increased 19 percent in the two weeks following Ivan.

And it's not just hurricanes that cause damage, and it's not just oil flow outages that are the problem.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Tropical Storm Arlene caused the evacuation of oil rigs off Louisiana and elsewhere. The storm, with 60-mph winds, damaged a derrick off New Orleans and caused a 550-gallon oil spill - not that big a deal in the global scheme of pollution threats.

However, the rig's spill ended up in a National Wildlife Refuge, and more than 700 birds died, many brown pelicans.

What to do?

Not much of anything can be done. The big oil rig that is the world's largest cost $1 billion to build, with all the bells and whistles and safety features known built within its structure, and it was hammered by a Hurricane Dennis. What about all those other, smaller, older derricks out there? How long will they hold out in the face of 150-mph winds?

Sandscript factoid

The following notes have appeared in Sandscript before, but in light of the approaching 70th anniversary of the Labor Day Hurricane, they warrant repeating.

These comments are from Ernest Hemingway as he prepared his 40-foot fishing yacht "Pilar" for the storm while he was living in Key West. The excerpt is from Les Standiford's book, "Last Train to Paradise."

"Sunday you spend making the boat as safe as you can. When they refuse to haul her out on the ways because there are too many boats ahead, you buy $52 of new hawser and shift her to what seems the safest part of the submarine base and tie her up there.

"You go on to the boat and wrap the lines with canvas where they will chafe when the surge starts, and believe that she has a good chance to ride it out ... provided no other boat smashes into you and sinks you. There is a booze boat seized by the Coast Guard tied next to you and you notice her stern lines are only tied to ringbolts in the stern, and you start bellyaching about that ...

"You go home to see if you can get two hours' sleep before it starts, leaving the car in front of the house because you do not trust the rickety garage, putting the barometer and a flashlight by the bed for when the electric lights go. At midnight the wind is howling, the glass is 29.55 and dropping while you watch it, and rain is coming in sheets. You dress, find the car drowned out, make your way to the boat with a flashlight with branches falling and wires going down.

"The flashlight shorts in the rain, and the wind is now coming in heavy gusts from the northwest ... you have to crouch over to make headway against it. You figure if we get the hurricane ... you will lose the boat and you never will have enough money to get another. You feel like hell."

The "Pilar" survived the storm.

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