Photograph by Raul Touzon, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Quiet Season

Stormy views of TV coverage of Hurricane Frances in 2004

Photograph by Raul Touzon, Nat Geo Image Collection

This Year’s Quiet Hurricane Season Could Still Surprise Us

NOAA is predicting lighter-than-usual hurricane activity in the Atlantic this year. But quiet seasons aren't necessarily silent.

The relatively quiet Atlantic hurricane season of 2015 is expected to continue through the rest of the summer and fall. But an otherwise calm season can still produce a monster hurricane capable of inflicting massive damage somewhere between Texas and New England.

It’s happened before.

An intensifying El Niño has brought storm-disrupting weather to the Atlantic this summer. Only three tropical storms have formed, and none have intensified into hurricanes. During an average hurricane season, about ten tropical storms form, with six becoming hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph (119 km/h). On average, two or three hurricanes intensify into major hurricanes with winds exceeding 110 mph (177 km/h).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) thinks a total of six to ten named storms will form this year. Meteorologists at Colorado State University think only five more tropical storms will form this year, for a total of eight. Both CSU and NOAA think only one major hurricane is likely to form.

It’s that one storm that could make 2015 a very bad hurricane season.

Meteorologist Stanley Goldenberg at NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division in Miami says he’s “always very concerned” when forecasters predict a below-average season. “When I talk to the public, I see them relax,” he says.

Goldenberg points out that 1992 was a very quiet hurricane season. The first tropical storm didn’t form until August 16. Its name was Andrew, and its 175 mph (282 km/h) winds shredded Florida City and Homestead, Florida, then it crossed the Gulf of Mexico and tore into Louisiana. Andrew’s tab totaled more than $26.5 billion in damages.

Most Atlantic tropical storms form in an area just north of the Equator near the eastern Caribbean Sea. But when conditions are hostile there, storms sometimes find more favorable conditions after they move north to an area known as the “mid-latitudes” north of the Caribbean Sea, Goldenberg says.

That’s what happened with Andrew.

“It wasn’t getting its act together until it got out of the tropics,” Goldenberg says. “Then it started rapidly intensifying.”

Andrew was not an anomaly for a quiet season. The previous summer produced only eight named storms. But one of those storms was Hurricane Bob, which made landfall in Rhode Island and inflicted about $1.5 billion in damage as it plowed through New England.

Only four named storms formed during the 1983 season. But Hurricane Alicia was among them. It went ashore at Galveston, Texas and caused more than $2.6 billion in damage.

The summer of 1965 produced only six named storms. But Hurricane Betsy, which formed in late August, became a true monster hurricane with peak winds eventually reaching 155 mph (249 km/h). The storm made landfalls in Florida and Louisiana and did about $1.5 billion in damage.

Watch: How Hurricanes Can Be So Destructive

Sometimes, it doesn’t take a powerful hurricane to inflict destruction and misery. In 2001, 10 storms formed, making it an average year. The first one, Tropical Storm Allison, had peak winds of only about 60 mph (97 km/h). But Allison dumped more than three feet of rainfall in some places during its trek from Texas to New Jersey, killing 41 people and doing $9 billion in damages.

Still, CSU forecasters think there’s a 23 percent chance that a major storm will hit the U.S. coast. That’s well below the average of 52 percent for the past century.

North Carolina author Willie Drye’s new book, For Sale—American Paradise, will be published by Lyons Press on October 1.