Every December, the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University goes out on a limb and makes an official prediction of the chances that a major (Category 3-4-5), land-falling hurricane will hit the United States in the coming year.
Storm predictions are, to say the least, an inexact science. But given the brutal storms of 2005 -- and the fact that hurricane season is just two and a half months away -- people are paying a little more attention.
So what do they see on the horizon? Here are their predictions, broken down by region:
Probabilities For at Least One Major (Category 3-4-5) Hurricane Landfall on the Following Coastal Areas in 2006:
1) Entire U.S. coastline - 81% (average for last century is 52%)
2) U.S. East Coast Including Peninsula Florida - 64% (average for last century is 31%)
3) Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle westward to Brownsville - 47% (average for last century is 30%)
To give you a sense of how high these numbers are: in December 2004, they forecasted only a 69% chance of "one major hurricane" for the entire U.S. coast. Instead, we got four (Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma). In 2003, they anticipated a 68% chance of a hit (we got Charlie, Ivan and Jeanne).
In fact, many argue -- as in this recent thread at The Oil Drum -- that the center chronically underestimates storms (for example, it underplays the role of greenhouse gases in intensifying storms), making the 2006 predictions too low.
Add to this already dangerous mix the the recent return of La Nina -- which as the St. Petersburg Times reported Monday, is known to amplify storms:
It looks more and more like another nerve-racking hurricane season.
Sea surface temperatures are above average, La Nina has returned and the Atlantic Basin remains in an "up" cycle for storms. [...]
"There is no reason not to expect a real active season," said Hugh Willoughby, a renowned hurricane researcher at Miami's Florida International University.
How prepared are we for these storms? President Bush, after making a belated trip to New Orleans last week, called for $1.5 billion for levee repair in the Gulf -- but that still has to go through Congress, which dragged its feet for four months after Katrina hit to authorize rebuilding aid, and it's still probably too little, too late.
But the long-term problem is much bigger. We're now in a storm "up cycle" that could last for a couple decades. This is exacerbated by what MIT scholar Kerry Emanuel found in his provocative article in Nature last year, that tropical storms have markedly increased in destructiveness over the last 30 years.
This is a huge issue 53% of the country's population lives in coastal counties, and it's growing fast -- the number increased by 28% (or 33 million people) from 1980 to 2003, even though these areas are only 17% of the nation's land area.
This is especially a big deal in the South. Although California still has the largest raw numbers of coastal dwellers, the South's coastal population is growing the fastest:
The Southeast region, however, exhibited the largest rate of change with a 58 percent increase, followed by the Pacific at 46 percent, and the Gulf of Mexico at 45 percent.
The Southeast has increasingly become a leading destination for retirees and job-seekers. Between the years 1995 and 2000, the Census Bureau reported that the highest levels of migration were to states that fall within the Southeast region and the Gulf of Mexico region, particularly to Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.
In other words, issues of our country's energy policy and coastal development are rapidly coming to a head, in dramatic and possibly catastrophic ways. And there is little evidence that our leaders, from Southern politicians to the White House, have any plan to address it.