Gulf Coast residents and others in the path of hurricanes can breath a sigh of relief about one thing -- an already devastating meteorological phenomena likely won't inflate the power or number of hurricanes this season.

La Niña-based climatic conditions, this spring, rained all over the West with unusually high levels of precipitation while wringing out the southwest, southeast and southern and central plains with drought conditions.

Luckily, La Niña is "not expected to have an effect on the Atlantic hurricane seasons this year," according to oceanographers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Eye-in-the-sky forecasters from NASA say their assessment is in agreement with the forecasts of the more earthbound meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center.

Don't get too relieved.

The finding doesn't mean the hurricane season beginning June 1 won't be one for the history books. It's still forecast as a potential humdinger even as numerous studies reveal many residents aren't prepared for the worst.

The 2006 season just won't get any help from La Niña, according to oceanographers and meteorologists.

Just as El Niño warms up surface waters in the Pacific and exacerbates existing weather patterns -- dry seasons get drier, wet seasons get wetter, etc. -- La Niña has the same effect when it cools ocean surface waters.

"La Niña is already a memory," said David Adamec, an oceanographer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD.

"The current temperature signal at the end of April is near normal and the ocean surface temperature has not yet caused the atmosphere to respond in a La Niña-like way," he added.

According to a dozen lauded ocean-atmosphere computer models, the equatorial Pacific will be neutral to warm in August, when it really matters for hurricanes.

Along with La Niña's temperature changes in the Pacific, it also lessens Atlantic Ocean winds that would normally tear into and disrupt hurricanes' circular wind pattern.

That typically makes it easier for storms to form, something that shouldn't happen this year.

"During the winter and early spring (mainly January to March), La Niña contributed to the heavy rains in northern California and the Pacific Northwest and to drier than normal conditions throughout the southwest, southern and central plains, and the southeast. La Niña is fading, with a return to normal conditions expected during the next few months," Mike Halpert, a NOAA meteorologist told nemmar.com.

NOAA's official hurricane outlook is due in Mid-May, but according to the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University forecast presented in April, the June 1 to November 30, 2006 hurricane season will generate 17 named storms, nine hurricanes and five intense hurricanes.

The probability for at least one major Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane to reach landfall anywhere along the East Coast is 64 percent, 33 points above the average for the last century. A Gulf Coast landfall, from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville, Texas, is 47 percent; 14 points over the average during the last century, according to the university.

That's somewhat off the 2005 season which spawned a record 26 named storms and a record 7 major or intense hurricanes as well as 14 hurricanes. The 2005 season was also the first time there were four Category 5 hurricanes in one season, as season that also accounted for the most deaths in a single hurricane season, according to Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Florida.

Even with La Niña out of the way, it only takes one storm like Hurricane Katrina to ruin a region's life. Without a direct hit on a major metropolitan area, Katrina spawned $80 billion in damage and became the nation's greatest natural disaster ever.

Virtually all weather experts still expect a greater than average number of Atlantic Ocean hurricanes this year, because of other environmental conditions favorable to hurricanes.

The location of the Bermuda high is forecast to remove much of the wind shear in the western Atlantic that typically thwarts hurricanes, and warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico is like a petri dish for hurricanes.

Global warming isn't helping.

"For the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, the fading La Niña is a real good thing, but Atlantic sea surface temperatures are still very toasty. It's the summer conditions that will dictate the fall hurricane activity," said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

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