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Is Bonnie A Sign Of The Future?

Attention may currently be focused on Bonnie and Danielle, but forecasters say the storms are just the beginning of an unusually busy period for hurricane and tropical storm activity.

As residents up and down the East Coast do battle with a weakened Bonnie, Danielle, another violent storm, is brewing in the Atlantic.

Meteorologists fear that Bonnie and Danielle may be predecessors for worse storms to come.

"We believe we're entering a new era for storms," meteorologist William Gray said.

Gray is fearful that the next 20 years will not only bring more hurricanes, but more severe storms as well — a series of storms more powerful than 1992's Andrew, which caused $20 billion in damage across south Florida.

Hurricane Hortense
Gray and his colleagues at Colorado State University say they see warning signs out in the ocean. Imagine a hurricane of Andrew's intensity every few years. In this new era, he said, that's what we may face.

"We will likely see much more hurricane damage than we've ever previously seen," Gray said.

Are we ready for it?

"Probably not. No," Gray said.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headquarters in Miami, Chris Landsea says hurricane activity runs in 20- to 25-year cycles. While the early part of the century was quiet, the '40s, '50s, and '60s were very active.

We were averaging 3 to 5 strong hurricanes a year," Landsea said. "But then around 1970 we had a dramatic switch and we only averaged one or two of these strong hurricanes a year...I'm worried about this."

In this dry spell-between 1970 and 1994-only three major storms made landfall on the East Coast. That is compared to 15 in the previous 25 years.

Hurricane Bertha
El Nino stifled hurricane activity last season. But it will soon fade, and Landsea says the new era may already have started.

"That's what we're really concerned about is the extremely busy seasons of '95 and '96," Landsea says. "We had 20 hurricanes in 2 years."

Another warning signal worries meteorologists. A warming in the temperature in the North Atlantic. It's part of a mysterious climate phenomenon called the Atlantic conveyor belt.

This belt of water speeds up or slows down every few decades. When it moves faster and the North Atlantic heats up, the conditions become right for hurricanes.

Landea said meteorologists don't know what causes it or why it happens.

And the danger? Millions of Americans have migrated to the coast in these calmer hurricane years. They're asking for trouble, the weathermen say, and there's only so much anyone can do to help.

"If we get more frequent storms, we may forecast 'em better, the warnings may go out better," Gray said. "But the storm is still going to come. It's still going to do damage."

In this new era, forecasters fear that damage may routinely reach billions of dollars. Andrew was only the beginning.

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