By Andrea Mustain, OurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer:

An unusually early spate of tropical storms has been keeping forecasters busy this year, and now Tropical Storm Debby, the fourth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, has set a record — this season marks the first time in more than 150 years that so many storms have showed up so early.

"This is first time we've had four tropical storms develop in the Atlantic basin before July 1," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla.

U.S. records for tropical storms and hurricanes stretch back to 1851, Feltgen told OurAmazingPlanet. And although Tropical Storm Debby has broken the century-and-a-half-long record, there is certainly a chance that four storms may have formed this early in the past, yet escaped notice simply because forecasters didn't have the tools to see them.

"We figure that back in the day there could have been several storms per season that could have been missed," Feltgen said. "We didn't have satellites." Forecasters relied largely on ship reports and on firsthand observations when a storm hit land.

Historic storms

Tropical Storm Debby roared to life over the Gulf of Mexico and attained tropical storm status late in the afternoon on Saturday, June 23.

The first named storm of the season, Tropical Storm Alberto, appeared on May 19, the earliest debut for a named storm since 2003; Tropical Storm Beryl and Hurricane Chris followed. [Infographic: Storm Season! How, When & Where Hurricanes Form]

Storms are christened only once they reach tropical storm strength — meaning an organized, rotating storms with maximum wind speeds of at least 39 mph (63 kph).

Because tropical storms and hurricanes are fueled by warm ocean waters, the areas that have the ingredients required to feed a storm's fury are more limited earlier in the season, Feltgen said.

The area that is the most favored area of development is pretty narrow, he said, and typically limited to areas of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and warmer, southern regions of the Atlantic.

"In the grand scheme of the Atlantic basin that's a relatively small area," Feltgen said.

However, unusually warm waters didn't contribute to this year's early storms — they were generated when storm systems that formed over land moved out over the ocean, said Gerry Bell, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's lead seasonal hurricane forecaster.

"Unless the water is sufficiently warm you're not going to get a tropical storm, but warm water wasn't the main ingredient allowing these things to form," Bell told OurAmazingPlanet. He pointed to disturbances in the jet stream and storm fronts moving out over the water as the main culprits.

"There's nothing special about that, that's how storms typically form this time of year," Bell said.

During the peak of hurricane season, in August, September and October, patches of rough weather that originate in Africa spark the bulk of the storms, Bell said. In addition, tropical waters that have had time to warm up, along with favorable winds, allow more storms to form at that time of the year.

The unusual onslaught of named storms has not altered the outlook for the rest of the season, Bell said, which is forecast to be a near-normal one. Projections for the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season call for a total of nine to 15 named storms, with four to eight of those storms becoming hurricanes.

Dangerous conditions

Tropical Storm Debby is lashing Florida with punishing rains, and is producing dangerous storm surges between 4 and 7 feet (1.2 and 2 meters) along the state's panhandle. The storm spawned 20 reported tornadoes yesterday (June 24), one of which killed a Florida woman in her home.

Debby has remained parked over the Gulf of Mexico, with much of the severe weather hitting to the east of the center of the storm.

Although the storm has weakened slightly, it is still packing winds of 45 mph (75 kph), and is expected to move only very slowly toward the northeast over the next two days, meaning there is little relief in sight for Florida and Georgia residents.

Reach Andrea Mustain at amustain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaMustainFollow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2012 OurAmazingPlanet, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Black skimmer

    In this Sunday, June 24, 2012 photo provided by Lou Newman, a black skimmer chick is covered in sand at Anna Maria beach in Bradenton, Fla. Wind and waves produced by Tropical Storm Debby destroyed many nesting bird sites and turtle nests along the west coast of Florida. (AP Photo/Lou Newman)

  • Kursty Setty, right, reacts as she stands in her uncle's flooded pet store Live Oak Fla., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Dozens of homes and businesses were flooded by torrential rains from Tropical Storm Debby. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

  • Personal photographs float under the floodwater outside homes in Live Oak Fla., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Dozens of homes and businesses were flooded by torrential rains from Tropical Storm Debby. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

  • Tropical Storm Debby

    A man paddles through flood waters from Tropical Storm Debby in downtown Live Oak, Fla. on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. The National Hurricane Center says Debby has weakened to a tropical depression as it continues to move across Florida, bringing flooding to many areas. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Matt Stamey)

  • Shanne Piet, right, transfers one of his live snakes into a dry cage with help from J.D. Crews after opening up his flooded pet shop in Live Oak Fla., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Dozens of homes and businesses were flooded by torrential rains from Tropical Storm Debby. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

  • Tarra Piet, right, is embraced by her cousin Kursty Setty as they stand in Piet's fathers' flooded pet store Live Oak Fla., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Dozens of homes and businesses were flooded by torrential rains from Tropical Storm Debby. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

  • Kursty Setty paddles a small boat away from her uncle's flooded pet shop in Live Oak Fla., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Dozens of homes and businesses were flooded by torrential rains from Tropical Storm Debby. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

  • Black skimmer

    In this Sunday, June 24, 2012 photo provided by Lou Newman, a black skimmer chick is covered in sand at Anna Maria beach in Bradenton, Fla. Wind and waves produced by Tropical Storm Debby destroyed many nesting bird sites and turtle nests along the west coast of Florida. (AP Photo/Lou Newman)

  • Shawn Thomas, with the Clay County Engineering Division, checks out CR 218 west of Middleburg, Fla., where the road washed out overnight Wednesday, June 26, 2012. Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Debby were the cause of the floods. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey)

  • Clay County engineers and contractors inspect CR 218 west of Middleburg, Fla. Wednesday, June 27, 2012, after the road washed out overnight. Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Debby were the cause of the floods. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey)

  • Natalie Bickford, left, reacts to the flooding of her neighbors' homes as she take a boat ride with her husband Mark Bickford, right, and Chad Mullen in the floodwaters of Black Creek Wednesday, June 27, 2012 in Middleburg, Fla. Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Debby were the cause of the floods. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Will Dickey)

  • A home is inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby in Lafayette County, Fla., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)

  • Bill Koon prepares to trailer a boat after using it to move about floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby in Lafayette County, Fla., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)

  • A home is inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby in Lafayette County, Fla., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)

  • A home is inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby in Lafayette County, Fla., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)

  • Mickey Anderson, 64, arrives at his house after wading through floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby in Lafayette County, Fla., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)

  • A street sign is inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby in Lafayette County, Fla., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)

  • Jarred Schreck, 12, second from left, and his neighbors Reba Hurst and her husband Wendell use a boat to get to their house inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby in Lafayette County, Fla., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Debby destroyed homes and businesses, washed away roads and flooded neighborhoods in Florida before the once-large tropical storm drifted out to sea Wednesday, leaving behind a sopping mess. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Doug Finger)

  • In this June 19, 2012 photo provided by Plaquemines Parish Government, tern chicks washed out of their nests huddle on higher ground on Cat Island West, due to a rising tide in advance of Tropical Storm Debby, when it was categorized as a tropical depression, just outside of New Orleans in Barataria Bay. (AP Photo/Plaquemines Parish Government, P.J. Hahn)

  • Tropical Storm Debby

    Water sneaks into a restaurant in Cedar Key, Fla. as Tropical Storm Debby churns on the Florida Gulf coast waiting to makes its way across the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

  • TROPICAL STORM DEBBY

    Waves crash against the coast in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. as wind, waves, and storm from Tropical Storm Debby pound the Florida panhandle Sunday, June 24, 2012. Louisiana's governor declared a state of emergency as the storm threatens to flood low-lying coastal areas. (AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily, Devon Ravine)

  • Tropical Storm Debby

    High winds, high tide strike at the main street of Cedar Key, Fla., as Tropical Storm Debby makes it's way across the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday, June 24, 2012. Parts of Florida, including the Panhandle, remain under a tropical storm warning as Debby churns off the Gulf Coast. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

  • In this June 19, 2012 photo provided by the Plaquemines Parish Government, a pelican nest is inundated on Cat Island West, due to a rising tide in advance of Tropical Storm Debby, when it was categorized as a tropical depression, in Barataria Bay, just outside of New Orleans. (AP Photo/P.J. Hahn, Plaquemines Parish Government, handout)

  • Cedar Key Fire Chief Robert Robinson walks on a section of a floating dock that broke loose during a storm surge from Tropical Storm Debby in Cedar Key, Fla., on Sunday, June 24, 2012. Slow-moving Tropical Storm Debby's outer bands lashed Florida with rain and kicked up rough surf off Alabama on Sunday, prompting storm warnings for those states. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Brad McClenny)

  • Cedar Key Police Chief Virgil Sandlin steps onto a section of a floating dock to secure it as strong storm surge and flooding are felt from Tropical Storm Debby in Cedar Key, Fla., Sunday, June 24, 2012. Sandlin said it was like riding a bronco trying to keep balance on the dock. Slow-moving Tropical Storm Debby's outer bands lashed Florida with rain and kicked up rough surf off Alabama on Sunday, prompting storm warnings for those states and causing at least one death. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Brad McClenny)

  • Cedar Key Fire Chief Robert Robinson clings to a section of a floating dock that broke free from the rest as strong storm surge and flooding are felt from Tropical Storm Debby, in Cedar Key, Fla., Sunday, June 24, 2012. Robinson tries to attach a chain to the dock section so it can be lifted out of the Gulf by a forklift. Slow-moving Tropical Storm Debby's outer bands lashed Florida with rain and kicked up rough surf off Alabama on Sunday, prompting storm warnings for those states and causing at least one death. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Brad McClenny)

  • Cedar Key Police Chief Virgil Sandlin works on his hands an knees to secure a section of a floating dock as strong storm surge and flooding are felt from Tropical Storm Debby, in Cedar Key, Fla., Sunday, June 24, 2012. Sandlin said it was like riding a bronco trying to keep balance on the dock. Slow-moving Tropical Storm Debby's outer bands lashed Florida with rain and kicked up rough surf off Alabama on Sunday, prompting storm warnings for those states and causing at least one death. (AP Photo/The Gainesville Sun, Brad McClenny)

  • NOAA CLOUDS

    This NOAA satellite image taken Monday, June 25, 2012 at 1:45 a.m. EDT shows Tropical Storm Debby located about 90 miles southwest of Apalachicola, Florida with maximum sustained winds near 60 mph and higher gusts. A Tropical Storm Warning remains in effect for areas from the Mississippi-Alabama border eastward to the Suwannee River Florida. A Tropical Storm Watch is in effect for areas south of the Suwannee River to Englewood, Florida. (AP PHOTO/WEATHER UNDERGROUND)

  • This photo provided by the Florida Highway Patrol shows a patrol car blocking passage on the Sunshine Skyway bridge near St. Petersburg, Fla. Monday, June 25, 2012. The bridge was closed in both directions after wind was reported at 52 miles per hour. Off the coast since the weekend, Tropical Storm Debby raked the Tampa Bay area with high wind and heavy rain in a drenching that could top 2 feet over the next few days and trigger widespread flooding. (AP Photo/Florida Highway Patrol)

  • Cars try to avoid a beach umbrella as it is pushed around by the high winds of Tropical Storm Debby in Panama City, Fla., on Monday, June 25, 2012. (AP Photo/The News Herald/Panama City, Fla., Andrew Wardlow)

  • In this June 19, 2012 photo provided by the Plaquemines Parish Government, a tern chick is washed out of its nest on Cat Island Westdue to a rising tide in advance of Tropical Storm Debby, when it was categorized as a tropical depression, just outside of New Orleans in Barataria Bay. (AP Photo/Plaquemines Parish Government, P.J. Hahn)

  • Wendy Slaughter, left, helps Pat Boninsh, center, tie down the covering on their Cedar Key, Fla., boat rental docking porch as Jacqueline Slaughter, right, makes sure it's complete. High winds and rain from Tropical Storm Debby drenches the Gulf coast as it makes it's way across the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

  • Hank Parker

    Surfer Hank Parker heads out to catch waves in Dauphin Island, Ala., Sunday, June 24, 2012, as Tropical Storm Debby churned off the Gulf Coast, leaving wary residents to closely watch a storm whose path has so far been difficult to forecast. Warnings were issued for coastal Alabama, low-lying coastal areas in Louisiana and parts of Florida, including the Panhandle. (AP Photo/Mobile Register, Mike Kittrell)

  • Tropical Storm Debby

    Police Chief Darryl Wilson waves in surfers as a storm warning is issued in Dauphin Island, Ala., Sunday, June 24, 2012, as Tropical Storm Debby churned off the Gulf Coast, leaving wary residents to closely watch a storm whose path has so far been difficult to forecast. Warnings were issued for coastal Alabama, low-lying coastal areas in Louisiana and parts of Florida, including the Panhandle. (AP Photo/Mobile Register, Mike Kittrell)

  • Peggy Hill, on vacation from Pittsburgh, Pa., runs alongside a cliff eroded into the beach, caused by waves spawned by Tropical Storm Debby, in Ocean Reef Park on Singer Island in Riviera Beach, Fla., Wednesday afternoon, June 27, 2012. At the top of the bank, orange and yellow markers designating sea turtle nests sit perilously close to the edge. (AP Photo/Palm Beach Postm Lannis Waters)