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Hurricane Season Off To Slow Start

The year 2000 was supposed to be an above-average year for hurricanes but the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season arrives Sunday, indicating the season got off to a slow start.

Since the June 1, start of the season, just two hurricanes have formed. Neither one was
really a "Big Blow" and they caused little damage. There was one storm-related death.

Experts trying to figure out why say they think they have the answer: it's called the Madden-Julian oscillation. It's an atmospheric disturbance flowing across the Atlantic Ocean that is combining with a weakening La Nina to suppress hurricane formation.

"Everyone is trying to understand what's happening," says Chris Landsea of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's hurricane research division on Virginia Key. "This is the stuff we're talking about in the back halls."

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But experts say the slow start is not necessarily unexpected. And they stress that residents in the hurricane zone should brace for storm activity over the next several months.

"Three weeks from now, we may be saying, `Wow, when was the last time we had so many storms in a row?'" says hurricane specialist Ed Rappaport at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "The pattern can change very quickly."

Landsea said the weakening La Nina has caused more "vertical shear," winds from different directions and altitudes that tear apart hurricanes.

Then there's the Madden-Julian oscillation. The atmospheric wave begins in the Indian Ocean and moves eastward. Usually it dissipates over the eastern Pacific.

"This year, for some reason, it has gotten into the Atlantic a bit and helped to shut things down," Landsea said.

But just as the oscillation has a phase which suppresses activity, it also has a period when conditions are more favorable for hurricane formation.

Landsea says: "We really still have to pay attention. These things can still come out of the Caribbean and aim right at us."

The National Hurricane Center and Colorado State University professor William Gray have issued forecasts for at least 11 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes this season.

So far, there have been five named storms and two minor hurricanes. In August, Hurricane Alberto became that month's longest-lived tropical storm on record. It churned up the north Atlantic but never threatened land. A minor Hurricane Debby soaked parts of the Caribbean in late August, but it broke up over Cuba. Three other named storms never reached hurricane intensity.

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