Storm Specialist Predicts More, Fiercer Hurricanes: Historical, Climactic Signs Bode Ill Winds

Article excerpt

Mid-August through early October marks the height of hurricane activity for the Atlantic seaboard, and this year scientists, homeowners and insurance executives are especially nervous. One reason is Bill Gray, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University and a noted hurricane prognosticator. Mr. Gray is predicting unprecedented hurricane catastrophes ahead.

The last two hurricane seasons set a record for hurricane activity. According to Mr. Gray, 1997 will continue the trend, signaling the beginning of a long cycle of rampaging storms that will tear into the U.S. mainland for the next two to three decades. If he's right - and he has testified before Congress on the subject - such fierce weather could cause at least a quarter-trillion dollars in damages over coming decades.

Mr. Gray hardly is an alarmist. Since the late 1980s, however, the self-effacing climatologist has been predicting an increase in major hurricanes, or storms with winds surpassing 110 mph. Hurricane Andrew, which ravaged Florida in 1992, left more than $30 billion in damage and killed 50 persons.

Since 1900, meteorological records indicate hurricane activity occurs in 20- to 30-year cycles. Meshed oceanographic and atmospheric elements underlie historical patterns of cyclical hurricane activity, none of which, Mr. Gray readily points out, has anything to do with human-induced "global warming."

From 1944 through 1960, for example, Andrew-intensity hurricanes hit the Eastern seaboard 16 times in 17 years. From 1970 through 1996, however, only five particularly fierce hurricanes struck the United States.

History says our luck is about to run out. But when? Mr. Gray had been hedging his bets, declining to predict just when hurricane activity would swing back to a more aggressive cycle. Until now. "I'm not 100 percent confident," he says, "but I believe we've finally turned the corner and are already into another violent phase reminiscent of those of the past."

For 1997, Mr. Gray is forecasting seven hurricanes blowing out of the Caribbean Basin. Three of the seven will be "intense," or hurricanes that fall into categories 3 to 5. That will make 1995-97 the most active consecutive years on record.

Chances are that Mr. Gray's predictions are correct. …