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Summer, fall rains largely depend on tropical weather

Hurricane season and summer rains. The 2012 Atlantic Hurricane season officially gets underway June 1. Forecasters are predicting a "near normal" tropical season with nine to 15 tropical storms.

The 2012 Atlantic Hurricane season officially gets underway June 1, a significant annual event for farmers across much of the country who are hoping for beneficial rain showers in the coming months.

“Tropical weather in the Atlantic or Gulf [of Mexico] not only increases the chances for substantial rain from the Southeast to the Southwest in the summer and fall months, but also can provide positive atmospheric conditions to an expanded area of the U.S. by providing a moisture-rich environment conducive to shower development as far away as the U.S. Midwest,” says NOAA hurricane forecaster Jerry Bell.

The official hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov.30 each year and forecasters this year are predicting a "near normal" tropical season with nine to 15 tropical storms, and four to eight of those expected to strengthen into hurricanes.

The tropical season got off to an early start this year with two tropical storms forming in May, just days before the official hurricane season began. Tropical Storm Alberto was the earliest storm in the Atlantic since 2003, but the system veered away from the U.S. coastline early last week and headed out to the central Atlantic. Over the weekend, Tropical Storm Beryl scraped against the South Carolina coastline before heading back out to sea, but delivered beneficial rains of 1 to 3 inches to drought-stricken Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

But forecasters are warning farmers not to get their hopes up. Pre-season storms are not uncommon, but there is not necessarily a connection between an early start and a busy season. In an average tropical season, 12 tropical storms with six hurricanes will form, including three major hurricanes. But 12 of the last 19 years have exceeded that average. According to NOAA, the region is in the midst of a multi-decade active period for hurricanes that began in 1995.

Two factors could keep this year's tally near normal, however. Hurricanes require warm ocean waters to develop, yet water temps in the Mid-Atlantic have been cooler so far this year, and there are currently strong wind shears in the area. But Bell says if an El Niño event develops near the end of the summer season, wind patterns could develop that would reduce the chance of Atlantic storm development.

According to the latest prediction models, an El Niño weather pattern could develop in late summer or early fall, effectively reducing the chance of storm development during the peak Atlantic hurricane season. But for farmers in Texas who are battling lingering drought, that may not be a bad thing.

Experts at Colorado State University agree there is a 50/50 chance of a below-average hurricane season because an El Niño event may be returning soon. Past El Niño events have demonstrated a history of being good news for Texas. El Niño typically brings wetter-than-normal weather to the Southwest, more normal winter conditions to the Northwest, fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin and generally warmer weather in the northern tier of the nation.

While NOAA forecasters say predicting the effects of El Niño and La Niña are difficult considering how much we don’t know about the global weather engine, they are constantly upgrading systems to produce more accurate models for agriculture. Beginning this year they will be adding unmanned drones to the arsenal of tools used to examine tropical weather development and behavior.

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