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Environment

Too Many Names

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For residents of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and the Caribbean islands, 1995 may be remembered as the year of the never-ending hurricane: 11 hurricanes--storms with sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or more-- pummeled the Atlantic from June through early November. Five of the 11 hurricanes--Felix, Luis, Marilyn, Opal, and Roxanne--were intense storms, with winds gusting to more than 110 miles per hour. (A typical year would see 6 hurricanes, including 2 intense ones.) This satellite image, made on August 28, shows 4 hurricanes at once: Luis, Iris, Karen, and Humberto. By early November, the 11 hurricanes and the 8 tropical storms that didn’t quite make the hurricane grade had caused at least 109 deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

It was the second-worst season of the century--only 1933 was worse--but it came as no surprise to hurricane forecaster William Gray of Colorado State University. Nearly all the factors that encourage hurricanes, Gray says, came together in 1995--and global warming had nothing to do with it. Seasonable rains in the western Sahel region of Africa, which had been unusually dry for the previous 25 years, spawned low-pressure cells that moved across the Atlantic; aided by westerly stratospheric winds, they became the seeds of hurricanes. El Niño, the Pacific sea-surface warming that tends to produce storm-stalling eastward winds over the Atlantic, was absent this past year for the first time in four years. On the other hand, the Caribbean had a warm spring--and the resulting low atmospheric pressure there strengthened the storms. We were not surprised that the Atlantic basin has experienced such an active hurricane season this year, Gray said in October. But we did not expect the season to be quite as active as it became.

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