MIAMI -- Whatever happened to the 2009 hurricane season? It never amounted to much. And that was kind of a surprise.
As the season started in June, forecasters were expecting about a dozen tropical storms and predicting that perhaps half of them would grow into hurricanes.
It didn't turn out that way. As the curtain went down on the season at the end of November, there had been nine storms. Three got strong enough to be called hurricanes with winds of more than 74 miles an hour. But not one of them hit the beaches of the United States as a hurricane. The best shots weakened over water and became mainly windy rainstorms.
The result, he said in an interview, was that as nascent storms came off the coast of Africa or popped up closer to the United States "they never got past" the stage of being a "cluster of thunderstorms."
It was the quietest hurricane season in 12 years.
Even quiet seasons can have deadly and costly consequences, though. A dozen people were swept off an outcropping of rocks along the coast of Maine by rough seas accompanying Hurricane Bill and one of them, a seven-year-old girl, drowned. In Florida, the authorities attributed the death of a 54-year-old swimmer to Hurricane Bill. Bill was the first hurricane of the season and it arrived in mid-August. That was 10 weeks into the season. In early November, Hurricane Ida flooded the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, knocked out bridges and flattened dozens of homes. Later, as a weaker tropical storm, Ida dropped a lot of rain on the Alabama coast near Mobile.
But, to the bigger issue: Does the relative quiet of 2009 mean the end of the much-talked-about onslaught of several decades of more and stronger hurricanes? The busy cycle started in 1995. Fourteen years later, is it over?
No. The quiet of 2009, according to Mr. Read, who has been in the hurricane business for more than 30 years, means almost nothing useful. Next year could be a terrible year along the United States Coasts, the islands of the Caribbean and the coasts of Central America. Or it could be a mild year. Chances are though, it won't be that mild.
The hostile winds that beat the baby storms to pieces before they could grow into monsters were created by what is known as the El Nino effect. El Nino periodically warms up the Pacific Ocean. Thunderstorms develop. Stronger than usual winds come racing over the Atlantic at 30,000 feet and more. The winds knock the tops off giant updrafts of spinning wind and rain that are on their way to becoming hurricanes. The next thing you know, the storm is falling apart.
What does the 2009 experience tell us about global warming? Again, nothing, Mr. Read said. This is a decades-long phenomenon and, he said, you "can't take any particular set of weather events in one year and draw" conclusions. Even over the long run, weather experts are not sure of the impact of global warming on hurricanes. On the one hand, warmer oceans should provide fuel for hurricanes. On the other, the experts say, a generally warmer atmosphere and warmer oceans would probably add up to a more stable situation, which is not good for hurricane formation.
A little more on El Nino. These characters usually do not have staying power. "Normally," Mr. Read said, "you don't have a second one, two years in a row." Historically, El Ninos have occurred about every seven years. Without El Nino, Mr. Read said, "the chances of storms developing in the Atlantic increases." That seems to mean that 2010 could be trouble.
But just so you don't start feeling like you know what's coming, some El Ninos have hung around for a second year.
There was no mention of El Nino in the early forecasts for the 2009 season and you might be forgiven if you thought it came out of nowhere. But Mr. Read said the forecasters thought an El Nino might develop and worked it into their predictions.
"It was hard to anticipate how strong it would be," Mr. Read said. But, he added, that if the experts had not been anticipating El Nino "we probably would have been looking at much higher numbers in the forecast." And even those numbers, it turned out, were on the high side. #