By JENNIFER KAY , Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — U.S. government forecasters said Thursday that they were expecting an active Atlantic hurricane season.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast calls for 10 to 16 named storms, with five to nine hurricanes. One to four hurricanes could be "major" with sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph).
If that forecast holds, it would make for a near-normal or above-normal season. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.
"There are no strong climate signals saying it's going to be extremely active, like last year, or extremely weak," said Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane forecaster at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.
NOAA's Climate Prediction Center outlook for the 2018 Atlantic hurricane has a 35% chance of an above-normal season, a 40% chance of a near-normal season, and a 25% chance of a below-normal season. https://t.co/go2s7MAwYf #hurricaneprep pic.twitter.com/AVws331KIc— Natl Hurricane Ctr (@NWSNHC) May 24, 2018
In the short term, forecasters say chances are increasing for the first tropical weather system of the year in the Gulf of Mexico.
The National Hurricane Center said Thursday a mass of low pressure in the western Caribbean is becoming better defined and will likely become a subtropical or tropical depression by late Saturday.
They're putting the chances of formation at 80 percent over the next five days.
The system is currently off the southeastern Yucatan Peninsula but it's expected to move northward. Heavy rains are likely across western Cuba, much of Florida and the northern Gulf Coast into early next week.
In the United States, downpours could dampen Memorial Day, the unofficial start of the tourist season.
If an El Nino develops later this summer, that could suppress storm development during the season's peak months from August through October. El Nino is the natural warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide and tends to reduce hurricane activity in the Atlantic.
Warm waters feed a hurricane's strength, while strong wind shear can pull it apart. If El Nino does not develop and water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea warm up, that could fuel more storm development, said Bell, who was speaking at NOAA's agency's aircraft operations center in Lakeland, Florida. That facility is the base for NOAA's "hurricane hunter" aircraft that fly into storms to collect data used in storm forecasts.
NOAA predicted that 2017 would be an above-average season, and it certainly was: A trio of devastating hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — ravaged Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and many Caribbean islands. Overall, last year saw 17 named storms, including 10 hurricanes.
The six-month Atlantic hurricane season officially starts June 1.