U.S. government forecasters expect a near-normal Atlantic season, after three comparatively slow years. But they also say climate conditions that influence storm growth are making it difficult to predict how many hurricanes and tropical storms will arise over the next six months.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s outlook Friday called for a near-normal season with 10 to 16 named blizzards, with four to eight hurricanes and one to four “major” ones with breezes reaching 111 mph and up.

The long-term season averages are 12 named cyclones, with six hurricanes and three major ones.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially starts June 1, but tropical weather got a head-start this year: HurricaneAlex made an unseasonable debut in January over the far eastern Atlantic.

On Friday, the National Hurricane Center said a zone of low pressure between Bermuda and the Bahamas became a tropical depression. A tropical storm warning was issued for the South Carolina coast.

Hurricane hunter aircraft were investigating the disturbance, and communities along the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas should monitor its development, said NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan.

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While they can’t predict whether any blizzard will strike the U.S ., and more tropical storms are expected than in the last three years, NOAA officers said significant variables are at play.

It’s unclear whether a decades-long high-activity era for Atlantic hurricanes has ended, said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Meanwhile, El Nino is dissipating while La Nina looms for the season’s peak from August through October.

El Nino is the natural warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather worldwide. That tends to reduce hurricane activity in the Atlantic, while La Nina tends to increase it.

The active storm era links with warm Atlantic temperatures and stronger West African monsoons began in 1995, but recent hurricane seasons showed transformations toward a cooler phase marked by colder waters and a weaker monsoon, Bell said.

Each era can last 25 to 40 years, and it might take years to determine whether the transition has happened, Bell said.

The last transition to a least active hurricane era happened in the 1970 s, without the data and computer models that forecasters have now. “We’re watching it for the first time with very new eyes, ” Sullivan said.

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2015 TALLY

The 2015 season was somewhat below average with 11 named storms, including two tropical storms that stimulated landfall and caused in South Carolina and Texas. Hurricane Joaquin, one of two cyclones to reach majorhurricane strength, killed all 33 sailors aboard a cargo ship that sank off the Bahamas in October.

During U.S. Coast Guard investigative hearings this month into the sink of the El Faro, one federal investigator characterized the disaster as “a colossal failure” of management.

Initial forecasts for Joaquin also were wildly inaccurate. Sullivan said NOAA is on track to meet storm track and intensity forecast improvement goals, and a new climate spacecraft launching this fall will produce much sharper images of hurricanes and other severe weather.

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The last major hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland was Hurricane Wilma, which cut across Florida in 2005. Wind velocities , not injury estimates, determine whether a hurricane is classified as “major” that’s Category 3 and up on the hurricane wind scale.

Since 2005, the population in the 185 coastline counties most threatened by hurricanes has grown 8.7 percent to 59.2 million people, according to U.S. Census calculates. Overall, 143.6 million people 44.7 percent of the U.S. population from Maine to Texas could be living in harm’s way.

Other Census figures hint at the potential fiscal risks throughout those states: 60.1 million housing units and 3.3 million business establishments with 52.3 million paid workers.

Ferocious storm gales aren’t the deadliest menace. According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, storm surge and rainfall flooding combine for three-quarters of all U.S. deaths from hurricanes, tropical storms or tropical depressions.

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MAJOR DAMAGE

In the Bahamas, Joaquin caused over $60 million in injury, according to the hurricane centre. The islands reported widespread flooding that polluted drinking water, cut off an airport and swamped a local fishing fleet.

Even “minor” storms can leave sadnes behind. After Tropical Storm Erika swept through the Caribbean last year, injury estimations on the island of Dominica ranged up to $500 million for homes, roads, bridges and infrastructure, and Puerto Rico reported $17.4 million in agricultural loss for plantains, bananas and coffee.

The Northeast was wracked by catastrophic flooding, first from Hurricane Irene in 2011 and again from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Injury calculates tallied in the tens of billions of dollars.

Due to the financial hardships left in Sandy’s wake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Monday that it’s overhauling its appeals process for inundate insurance claims with more transparency and oversight. Homeowners will be able to take disputes directly to FEMA instead of first going through the insurance companies they’re fighting.

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CLIMATE CHANGE

Rising sea levels are expected to increase the vulnerability of coastal communities to inundating from tropical systems. Recent research indicates is likely to construct hurricanes more intense in the future.

Improved computer models show that warming atmospheric condition may obstruct tropical cyclone development worldwide, says David Nolan, a University of Miami professor of atmospheric sciences.

But the hurricanes that do form could grow more intense because ocean temperatures will be higher, Nolan says. Warm ocean water feed hurricanes like fuel in an engine.

“The ones that do pass could be a little bit stronger, ” Nolan says, “but the changes over the next 10, 20, 30 years would be very small, virtually undetectable.”

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