This year's Atlantic hurricane season will be "above normal," with 12 to 18 storms, thanks in part to unusually warm ocean temperatures, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said yesterday.

Six to 10 of those storms are likely to reach hurricane strength, the agency said in its initial forecast for the 2011 storm season, which begins June 1 and ends Nov. 1. NOAA forecasters expect three to six of those storms to become major hurricanes with winds reaching 111 miles per hour or greater.

"The active Atlantic hurricane era that we entered back in 1995 continues," NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said. "During this period, the conditions in the oceans and the atmosphere have produced a larger number of storms and more powerful hurricanes."

This year, NOAA forecasters expect above-average warmth in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and the continuing influence of La Niña to drive a high level of storm activity.

The region's surface waters are 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average of this time of year, providing an extra burst of fuel to developing storms. Meanwhile, the current La Niña weather pattern -- expected to remain in place through early summer -- reduces the wind shear that can hinder hurricane development.

Speaking with reporters yesterday, Lubchenco touted her agency's forecasting ability, calling NOAA's forecast for last year's hurricane season "spot on." But she also warned that spending cuts enacted by Congress threaten NOAA's ability to produce detailed hurricane forecasts and track storms in the future.

"Because we have insufficient funds in the [fiscal] '11 budget, we are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do the severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today," Lubchenco said in remarks at NOAA's Satellite Operations Center in Suitland, Md.

A 'coverage gap' in future years
The agency had sought $910 million this year for its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which will provide data for weather forecasts, search-and-rescue operations and climate change research. But Congress approved just $382 million for the program.

NOAA says it has enough money to launch the first JPSS satellite in October. But the agency says this year's budget shortfall will force it to delay the launch of the program's second orbiter by 14 to 18 months, beyond the expected lifetime of the first satellite. The likely result is a gap in crucial weather and climate data (ClimateWire, May 4).

"Satellites are a must-have when it comes to detecting and tracking dangerous tropical weather. Not having satellites and their capabilities could spell disaster," Lubchenco said yesterday. "NOAA's satellites underpin hurricane forecasts by providing meteorological data over vast areas where we don't have other means of information."

The information those satellites collect is also key to understanding climate change -- an unpopular topic on Capitol Hill -- but the agency has downplayed that aspect as it presses lawmakers for more cash.

"We are working very closely with Congress for this satellite program," Lubchenco said. "We continue to emphasize how much, how important this program is as a matter of public safety. This is of national significance, and we are hopeful we will be able to get the funding to get this program back on track."

A major scientific group echoed those concerns yesterday.

"Funding JPSS is a national preparedness issue," Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, said in a statement yesterday. "A gap in satellite coverage could jeopardize everything from agriculture and aviation safety, to the oil and gas industry, to wildfire response and other search and rescue operations."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500