Lurking storm blocker bad omen for season By Robert P. King Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Monday, February 21, 2005 Hang on to that plywood ? Florida may be in for yet another angst-filled summer. Mere months after the ill-fated hurricane season that sent Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne flying through the state like back-to-back-to-back-to-back hand grenades, the world's weather patterns again appear to be aligning against us. El Nino, which could deter the storms from spawning, is waning. A decade-long trend of warmer, hurricane-friendly temperatures continues in the North Atlantic's waters. And, perhaps most worrisome for Florida, the Bermuda High still lurks in the western Atlantic. The subtropical ridge of high pressure became infamous in 2004 as one of the prime villains behind Florida's repeated pummeling. Strong and unusually close to the southeastern United States ? at least by the standards of the past decade or so ? the ridge squatted off the coast like a surly bouncer, barring hurricanes from sweeping north up the Atlantic. Instead, it shoved the storms toward Florida. Again, again, again and again. Guess what? The Bermuda High is still in roughly the same place, according to the National Weather Service. If the high lingers there through the summer and fall, Florida could be nature's punching bag for yet another hurricane season. Experts say it's too far soon to tell whether that dire scenario will occur. But it's not too soon to prepare for it. "If in fact the subtropical (Bermuda) High is going to be more frequently positioned farther south and west like it was in 2004, then one clearly has to be concerned," said James Elsner, a Florida State University hurricane researcher. Jim Lushine, a meteorologist for the weather service's Miami office, offered one hint to watch for: If May is unusually dry, as it was last year, that could be evidence that the high is still lingering ? and an omen of bad things to come. "I'm not saying we'll have four hurricanes in one year," he said. Then again, "I wouldn't be shocked if we had six." Others cautioned that the high's behavior was just one of many weird occurrences in 2004, a yearso off-the-wall bizarre that a hurricane hit Brazil ? in March. (The storm, unofficially named Catarina, was the first hurricane in at least four decades in the South Atlantic.) The Earth's climate is so complex that scientists don't understand everything that goes into creating a vicious hurricane season. "You have to have so many conditions to be perfect" to see another season like last year's, said Brian Bossak, a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg. "Even if one condition were conducive to a repeat, everything else might not be." Regardless of any forecasts, experts said, residents should prepare as if The Big One were headed their way. "I wouldn't take what's going on in February to make a guess of what's going to happen in August and September," said Chris Landsea, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami. "I'm going to make sure my shutters are ready, just to be safe." One of the nation's best-known hurricane soothsayers, Colorado State University researcher William Gray, has predicted a sharply higher than average chance of a Category 3 or stronger storm's hitting Florida and the rest of the U.S. East Coast this year. Still, it should be nothing like 2004, Gray wrote in his first 2005 forecast, in December. Meteorologists have long tried to predict how many hurricanes a given season will spawn, but they haven't made much headway on a far trickier problem: figuring out where they'll land. It's the second question that spawns all those long lines at Home Depot. After all, 1992 was a relatively dull year for hurricanes ? except for the first one, a Category 5 killer named Andrew. Since 1995, the North Atlantic has seen a significant spike in hurricane creation, but until last year they largely spared Florida. In fact, Florida was relatively unscathed by major hurricanes from the mid-1960s until last year, after being hit repeatedly in the 1930s and '40s, NOAA's Landsea said. Even 2004 was nothing special in the total number of hurricanes spawned, Bossak said. What was strange was that so many of the storms were major ? and, of course, that so many came whirling our way. That's where the Bermuda High might come in. The high is somewhat mysterious, a clockwise-swirling ridge of high pressure that wobbles back and forth across the Atlantic, strengthening and weakening, in response to weather patterns over Iceland and the Azores islands near Portugal. Sometimes it's in the western Atlantic near Bermuda ? hence the name. Forecasters confess they don't have an easy way to gauge the high's behavior. "We don't know why it's there or how long it's going to be there," Lushine said after the weather service issued a bulletin Feb. 2 blaming the strong Bermuda High for four months of record-dry weather in Palm Beach County. "It's not anything we keep track of." Lushine added that the high has remained strong and stayed, on average, in the same general area since March. The weather service doesn't have detailed records on its location before then, he said. The high can shift dramatically from day to day, in response to cold fronts and other disturbances. The high also can stick around the same neighborhood for thousands of years ? with vast consequences for the hurricanes spinning toward Florida. During a 2,800-year stretch ending around 1000 A.D., the Bermuda High seemed to linger near Haiti, said Kam-biu Liu, a geography professor at Louisiana State University who studies prehistoric sediments for clues about past climate conditions. That era was also a "hyperactive" period in which catastrophic hurricanes struck Florida and the Gulf Coast three to five times more often than today, Liu said. During the past millennium, he said, Florida has enjoyed a quiet period ? although that quiet included Andrew in '92 and the 1928 storm that killed more than 3,000 people near Belle Glade. Here's the scary part: The Bermuda High could easily move back toward Haiti, giving Floridians another thousand or so years of blue tarps. "We don't know how much longer this quiet period will last," Liu said. "That's the biggest lesson: We haven't seen anything yet."