Denver A top researcher predicted a "very active" 2007 Atlantic hurricane season Tuesday, with at least nine hurricanes and a good chance one will hit the U.S. coast.
The forecast by William Gray predicts 17 named storms this year, five of them major hurricanes. The probability of a major storm making landfall on the U.S. coast this year is 74 percent, compared with the average of 52 percent over the past century, he said.
This year's forecast, issued two months before the hurricane season starts, is virtually identical to the one that Gray issued ahead of the 2006 season, which turned out far quieter than he and others had feared.
"Our forecast skill does improve as we get closer to the start of the season," said Phil Klotzbach, a member of Gray's team at Colorado State University. "Stay tuned."
Last May, Gray's team forecast 17 named storms in 2006, including nine hurricanes, five of them major ones, and an 81 percent chance that at least one major hurricane would hit the U.S. Scientists with the National Hurricane Center and two other National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agencies issued similar predictions.
Instead, there were 10 named storms in 2006 and five hurricanes, two of them major ones, in what was considered a "near normal" season. None of those hurricanes hit the U.S. Atlantic coast - only the 11th time that has occurred since 1945.
Gray's team said a late, unexpected El NiÃ±o contributed to the calmer season last year. El NiÃ±o - a warming in the Pacific Ocean - has far-reaching effects that include changing wind patterns in the eastern Atlantic, which can disrupt the formation of hurricanes.
During the past winter, a weak to moderate El NiÃ±o occurred but dissipated rapidly, Klotzbach said.
"Conditions this year are likely to be more conducive to hurricanes," he said. In the absence of El NiÃ±o, "winds aren't tearing the storm systems apart."
The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, averages 9.6 named storms, 5.9 hurricanes and 2.3 intense hurricanes.
Federal government forecasters plan to release their prediction in late May.