by Brian K. Sullivan
Forecasters again lowered the odds of El Nino forming by year’s end, a scenario that may mean more Atlantic hurricanes at a time when federal agencies charged with predicting and responding to natural disasters lack top administrators.
The updated forecast, which is more reliable than earlier versions, sees a 36% chance El Nino will emerge between October and December, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center said Thursday. That’s down from 46% last month and 53% in March.
The forecast comes one week into the Atlantic hurricane season and as the Federal Emergency Management Administration lacks an administrator to replace Craig Fugate, who left office in January. President Donald Trump has nominated Brock Long, who led the Alabama Emergency Management Agency from 2008 to 2011, though he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Robert Fenton is serving as acting administrator.
For El Nino to form, “there are certain things you are looking for and we are not seeing them,” said Michelle L’Heureux, a forecaster with the climate center in College Park, Maryland. “This month is a little bit clearer. Now we are beyond the spring barrier and the models have shifted.”
El Nino, a warming of the equatorial Pacific that triggers a change in weather patterns, fuels winds that weaken Atlantic storms. Without that brake, more powerful systems may form, increasing the risk of a hit for the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean and Central American. Forecasters at Colorado State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have cited El Nino’s weakening prospects in calling for an above-average Atlantic storm season.
FEMA’s primary role is to coordinate the response to disasters that overwhelm state and local authorities. No one knows the political perils of even the perception of a poor federal response better than President George W. Bush, who was widely criticized for FEMA’s performance after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.
NOAA, the federal agency responsible for weather forecasting, also lacks an administrator. Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said leadership gaps shouldn’t be a major issue as hurricane season heats up.
“We are probably okay for this hurricane season,” Masters said. There was talk that “we should be scared. I don’t feel that way. We have enough momentum from the previous infrastructure.”
Fenton, a 20-year FEMA veteran, “has responded to more than 50 federal disasters, including the four Florida hurricanes of 2004, the Southern California wildfires of 2003 and 2007, the Super Typhoon Pongsona in Guam, and the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorists attacks,” William Booher, FEMA spokesman said in an emailed statement.
Ben Friedman has been acting director of NOAA, which oversees the National Weather Service, since Kathryn Sullivan left office in January.
“NOAA is fully prepared for the hurricane season,” said Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the agency.
Hurricanes can wreak havoc on energy and agriculture markets. The Gulf of Mexico, a frequent target of Atlantic storms, is home to 4.1% of U.S. natural gas production while Florida is the world’s second-largest orange juice producer behind Brazil and the largest U.S. grower of cane sugar.
El Nino’s impacts extend beyond the U.S. hurricane season. An El Nino that ended about a year ago dried up rice crops across Southeast Asia, cocoa fields in Ghana and sugar cane in Thailand. It also hurt coffee growers in Vietnam and sent choking smoke from wildfires into Singapore.
U.S. forecasters have lowered the weather phenomenon’s chances after models began to favor a neutral Pacific Ocean, between abnormally warm and cool conditions, L’Heureux said. That’s a break from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, which has maintained its El Nino watch. Australia uses different criteria to determine what an El Nino is.
--With assistance from Christopher Flavelle.
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