ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Tomorrow marks the end of the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record. Today weather forecasters added one more storm to the list, tropical storm Epsilon, which is moving over the central Atlantic. It is the 26th named storm of the season. As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, forecasters predicted a very busy year, and they got one.
JON HAMILTON reporting:
The National Weather Service starts each season with a list of 21 names for storms in the Atlantic. That's more than enough for a typical season. But at a press conference today, Weather Service Director David Johnson said 2005 has been anything but typical.
Mr. DAVID JOHNSON (Director, National Weather Service): This was the first season to exhaust the names that were on the list. And we had to go to the Greek alphabet, uncharted territory, with tropical storm Alpha, Hurricane Beta, tropical storm Gamma, tropical storm Delta and just an hour and a half ago tropical storm Epsilon.
HAMILTON: The season included 13 hurricanes. Four of them struck the US: Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Insurance companies expect the economic losses from those storms to be the largest in history. Katrina was also the deadliest hurricane since 1928. At least 1,300 people died. But weather officials say accurate forecasting saved many lives. Conrad Lautenbacher is the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
Mr. CONRAD LAUTENBACHER (Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): The track forecasts for 2005 may set new accuracy records. The error has been reduced by 50 percent over what we used to report 15 years ago.
HAMILTON: So forecasters can predict a storm's path within tens of miles instead of hundreds. NOAA used the press conference to publicize other achievements, too, like long-term forecasting. Back in May, the agency announced that 2005 was likely to be a big year. In early August, just before peak season, NOAA updated its forecast.
(Soundbite of broadcast)
Unidentified Man: News from NOAA. `More is on the way' is what NOAA projects for the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which already has set records.
HAMILTON: A few weeks later Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi coast. Despite NOAA's notable successes, there are hurricane experts who take issue with some of the agency's claims. For example, they say the accuracy of this year's seasonal forecast may have depended on luck as well as skill.
Professor KERRY EMANUEL (MIT): We were all right for probably the wrong reasons.
HAMILTON: Kerry Emanuel is a professor of atmospheric science at MIT. He also wrote a book called "Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes." He says forecasters expected a lot of storms to come from an area between the eastern Caribbean and Africa.
Prof. EMANUEL: Yet that isn't where the big hurricanes of the season developed. Very few of them developed there. Katrina and Rita and Wilma did not develop in that region.
HAMILTON: Instead those storms developed further west. Government scientists say that wasn't a big surprise and doesn't undercut the accuracy of their forecast.
Emanuel has another disagreement with government scientists. He thinks they've been too quick to dismiss the role of global warming in hurricanes. NOAA puts all the blame on something called the multidecadal signal, a historical pattern in which several decades of high hurricane activity are followed by several quiet decades. At today's press conference Dr. Jerry Bell of NOAA's Climate Prediction Center was adamant about the government's position.
Dr. JERRY BELL (NOAA Climate Prediction Center): The data shows very clearly that this is the tropical multidecadal signals. We see absolutely no indication whatsoever that greenhouse warming is causing any of it.
HAMILTON: Emanuel isn't convinced.
Prof. EMANUEL: That may turn out to be the case on further examination, but some of the rest of us looking at this see those cycles, plus a global warming signal.
HAMILTON: There's little disagreement about what the US can expect for the next decade or so: lots of tropical storms, lots of hurricanes and the possibility of another record-breaking year of devastation. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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