On The Horizon: Busy Season For Hurricanes

The Atlantic hurricane season begins in less than two weeks. Forecasters warn it's likely to be another busy one. At a news conference Thursday, government officials said climate factors remain conducive to hurricanes.

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The Atlantic hurricane season begins in less than two weeks, and forecasters warn it's likely to be a busy one. At a news conference today, government officials say climate factors remain conducive to hurricanes.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports that the officials issued another warning: that budget cuts are likely to impair the nation's ability to predict and track extreme weather in the future.

JON HAMILTON: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, presented this year's hurricane season outlook in a parking lot outside the facility they use to monitor satellites that track weather and climate. The setting was no accident. NOAA'S administrator, Jane Lubchenco, began by talking about the hurricane season.

Ms. JANE LUBCHENCO (Administrator, NOAA): We are expecting six to 10 hurricanes with winds of at least 74 miles per hour. Of those, three to six could become major hurricanes with winds of 111 miles per hour or greater.

HAMILTON: Lubchenco said the Atlantic is still in a period of high hurricane activity and sea surface temperatures remain warmer than usual. Also, a weak La Nina condition in the Pacific Ocean continues to generate wind patterns that make it easier for hurricanes to form in the Atlantic. Similar conditions last year produced 12 hurricanes, though none struck the U.S.

Then, Lubchenco used the occasion to point to the importance of NOAA's satellite program.

Ms. LUBCHENCO: Satellites are a must-have when it comes to being prepared in detecting and tracking dangerous tropical weather. Not having satellites and not applying their latest capabilities could spell disaster.

HAMILTON: And she said there's a very real possibility that could happen.

Ms. LUBCHENCO: The future funding for our satellite program is very much in limbo right now.

HAMILTON: Already, Lubchenco said, the agency has been forced to delay the launch of a critical satellite. It would have traveled in a polar orbit, beaming down information for weather and climate forecasts. As a result, when the current satellite doing that job stops working, there will be no replacement.

Ms. LUBCHENCO: We are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today.

HAMILTON: And Lubchenco says satellites aren't just for hurricanes.

Ms. LUBCHENCO: For example, our ability to do a five-day heads-up about the severe tornadoes that hit a couple of weeks ago was a direct consequence of our having polar orbiting satellites.

HAMILTON: Lubchenco's comments come after years of warnings by groups, including the National Academy of Sciences, that the U.S. needed to replace many aging satellites used to study and monitor the Earth.

The NOAA press conference also included remarks from Craig Fugate, administrator of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said satellites and other technologies are an essential part of the system that protects people from extreme weather, as long as they pay attention.

Mr. CRAIG FUGATE (Administrator, FEMA): Even with a perfect forecast, it doesn't mean there won't be devastation. People need to understand they have a responsibility as part of the team to be prepared and prepare now as we go into the 2011 hurricane season.

HAMILTON: Fugate said the first step is finding out whether you live in a hurricane evacuation zone.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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