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When NOAA says "above normal," what does it mean?

The Atlantic Hurricane Season officially kicked off at the beginning of this month. This is the time of year when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes its predictions for named storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes. And this is the time of year when Florida's property insurance companies focus on the NOAA's big picture summary instead of the detailed report as they justify their requests for rate increases.

It is actually an interesting exercise to compare NOAA's report to the information that makes it to the public. The Insurance Information Institute, for example, said the season is "expected to be above normal" in its May 31 press release. The III describes itself as a "nonprofit communications organization supported by the insurance industry." (To be fair, the NOAA's press release also includes "above normal.")

Drill down and the story's a little different -- and not quite so dire. The NOAA says the Atlantic hurricane region has a 65 percent chance of an above-normal season in 2011.

The conditions that informed the above-normal assessment include surface temperatures of the ocean, the absence of El Nino and La Nina conditions and the "tropical multi-decadal signal," which we won't even try to explain (much less understand).

The point is that NOAA isn't saying, "Hands down, this will be a bad season." Rather, the agency has looked at the data (and some weather models) and compared current conditions to past conditions to come up with a moderately confident estimate of what this season could hold.

We'll get into the actual numbers in our next post.

Source: National Weather Service, Climate Prediction Center, "NOAA 2011 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook," 05/19/2011

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