Summer of algae: Despite decades of efforts, near record levels of fertilizer fouled Lake O last year

Hurricane Irma’s torrential rains flooded Lake Okeechobee with more than 450 metric tons of phosphorus in a single month, contributing to a fertilizer dump that nourished this summer’s harmful algae bloom and surpassed the state’s phosphorus goal 10 times over.

Between May 2017 and this past April, 1,046 metric tons of phosphorus soured Lake Okeechobee, carried largely in runoff from farms, dairies, cattle ranches and communities north of Florida’s freshwater center.

About 6 percent of the water and 7 percent of the phosphorus that went into the lake during the same time period came from areas south of Lake O, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

RELATED: Palm Beach County beaches closed after people fall ill from red tide-like irritant 

Scientists predicted an algae bloom was possible after Irma’s September soaking drove lake levels up 3 feet in a month, but the extent of the phosphorus loading wasn’t clear until results were released during a September meeting of the district’s Water Resources Analysis Coalition, or WRAC.

“Last year was a fluke because of the way the rain came with Irma, but it’s a high point in a chronic problem,” said Audubon Florida scientist Paul Gray, who specializes in Lake Okeechobee research. “Clearly we haven’t done near enough to fix it.”

RELATED: White House approves massive reservoir to hold Lake O overflow

The five-year average flow of phosphorus into the lake, including last year, was 598 metric tons. In each of the four years previous, the range of phosphorus was between 415 metric tons and 574 metric tons.

The state goal set in 2001 is 105.

Read the rest of the story and find out more about the decades of failures in trying to fix the nutrient flow in


Lake O southern reservoir passes U.S. House, will reduce estuary discharges

Algae collects along the the shore of Shepard Park on the St. Lucie River near downtown Stuart June 12, 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill today that includes the authorization for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce harmful discharges to the northern estuaries.

The bill, called the Water Resources Development Act, still faces Senate approval. But advocates say they are hopeful a favorable Senate vote may happen this month because the language in Thursday’s bill was a compromise agreed to by House and Senate committee members. The bill is also known as America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.

“This is good news for America’s Everglades,” said Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy at Audubon Florida. “Thousands of Audubon supporters urged Congress and the White House to advance the Everglades Agricultural Reservoir project in the last few months.”

RELATED: Climate change will worsen algae problems

The $1.4 billion project slated for state-owned land in western Palm Beach County is a partial answer to activists’ calls to “send the water south” and could alleviate the blue-green algae blooms that have plagued the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

If approved by the end of the year, the plan for the 10,500-acre above-ground reservoir and 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area will seek money from the 2020 federal budget. Depending on how the money is distributed for the project — the state and federal government are expected to split the cost — the reservoir could take about 10 years to build.

RELATED: Ten things to know about the Herbert Hoover Dike and why Trump is weighing in

A coot swims through the algae in the Caloosahatchee River beside the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva on Wednesday. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

“Fixing our water issues is, without a doubt, the most important priority for our community, and this bill is significant progress in our fight,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Mast. R-Palm City. “People are getting sick, animals are dying and our environment is being demolished. We cannot wait any longer to get this bill signed into law.”\

RELATED: Why drain Lake O? One storm could push it to its limits

The reservoir was pushed by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the retiring Florida Senate president , and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May 2017. It followed the devastating algae outbreak of 2016 when thick foul-smelling mats of cyanobacteria covered the St. Lucie River during a period that included the Fourth of July holiday — a heavy tourist time for the Treasure Coast.

This summer, both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie are suffering algae outbreaks after record May rainfall forced discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

“At a time when we’re seeing toxic algae plague our nation’s waterways, bipartisan support and momentum in Congress is needed now more than ever,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association after today’s vote.


Phosphorus flow to Lake Okeechobee 10 times higher than goal last year

Torrential rain from Hurricane Irma washed more than 450 metric tons of phosphorus into Lake Okeechobee last September, contributing to a phosphorous dump that ended the year 10 times higher than the established goal.

In the weather year of May 2017 through April, 1,046 metric tons of phosphorous was washed into Lake Okeechobee with the highest amounts coming in September and October following Hurricane Irma’s Sept. 10 landfall.

The target goal for phosphorous into Lake Okeechobee is 105 metric tons per year.

Drew Bartlett, deputy secretary of ecosystem restoration for the Florida DEP, presented the numbers at a South Florida Water Management meeting this morning.

He said 90 percent of the loading comes from runoff north of Lake Okeechobee, including agriculture and urban development as far north as Orlando.

“We have a long way to go,” Bartlett said about meeting the goal of 105 metric tons per year. “That’s  hard, but I’m not going to say impossible. If I start saying impossible, than I start encouraging people to give up and I’m not looking to do that.”

Phosphorus contributes to blue-green algae blooms, which have occurred on Lake Okeechobee this summer and plagued the northern estuaries where excess lake water is discharged.

During the 2017 weather year – May 2016 to April 2017 – the estimated phosphorus in Lake Okeechobee was 369 metric tons, which is about 80 metric tons lower than it was when the goal of 105 was adopted in 2001.

“We’ve had the goal for almost 20 years and we’re not really coming close,” said Newton Cook, a member of the water district’s Water Resources Analysis Coalition. “There is no answer to this question as long as we have Orlando and Disneyworld and Traditions.”

Bartlett said there have been 166 projects completed to reduce phosphorus in the lake with an additional 54 underway.

A sign posted by Martin County Health Department warns to avoid contact with blue-green algae near the Port Mayaca locks on June 12, 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)


VIDEO: See what these workers found hatching in western Palm Beach County

A field crew working for the South Florida Water Management District stumbled across an amazing find recently.

While videos of sea turtle hatchlings scurrying toward the breaking waves of the Atlantic abound on the Internet, there’s fewer impromptu run-ins with alligator hatchlings.

These babies were still emerging from their eggs when they were found in stormwater treatment area (STA) 3/4. The STA in western Palm Beach County is the largest constructed wetland in the world.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, baby alligators are about 6 to 8 inches long when they hatch and live in small groups that are protected by mother gators.  Some 80 percent of young alligators fall victim to predators such as birds, raccoons, bobcats, otters, snakes, large bass and larger alligators.

There are five contained stormwater treatment areas south of Lake Okeechobee that are filled with non-native plants to eat up excess nutrients in water from agriculture runoff and, in some cases, runoff from urban areas. After the water is cleaned, it can be sent south into the Everglades.

UPDATE: Florence’s Category 4 status short-lived, but it should stay powerful for several days, forecasters say


(Eliot Kleinberg)

Hurricane Florence’s top sustained winds dropped 5 mph Wednesday night, but the storm “should remain a powerful hurricane for several more days,” the National Hurricane Center said in an 11 p.m. advisory.

At 11 p.m. Wednesday, Florence was about 1,235 miles east-southeast of Bermuda. Top sustained winds were 125 mph, making it a strong Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. The 5 p.m. advisory had said winds had jumped to 130 mph, pushing Florence into Category 4.

The system was moving toward the northwest about 10 mph and was expected to slow, and turn west-northwest, on Thursday night, then more west by the weekend.

“Some gradual weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours, with restrengthening possible over the weekend,” the advisory said.

Of more potential interest to Florida is the system just off the African coast that forecasters said could become a tropical depression in the next two days, with plenty of warm ocean water between it and North America. At 8 p.m., that broad area of low pressure was about 200 miles southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands and was moving west-northwest. And another tropical  wave was forecast to move off the west coast of Africa on Friday, It could become a depression over the weekend or early next week, an advisory said.


Category 4 Hurricane Florence

UPDATE 5 p.m.: The National Hurricane Center has upgraded Florence to a Category 4 storm with sustained 130-mph winds.

Forecasters note in their 5 p.m. advisory that Florence continues to “defy the intensity guidance, which has consistently been predicting weakening.”

Florence is about 1,295 miles east-southeast of Bermuda moving northwest at 13 mph. While forecasters are relatively confident in the forecast track toward the west-northwest over the  next two days, there is more uncertainty farther out.

“It is far too soon to speculate what, if any, impacts Florence may have on the U.S. East Coast next week,” the hurricane center said. 

Florence’s intensification into the first major hurricane of the 2018 storm season was a shock to forecasters who said no models pointed to it strengthening.

“Given the estimated maximum winds, Florence has been rapidly intensifying since yesterday, an event that was not foreseen by any intensity models or forecasters,” NHC meteorologists wrote in their 11 a.m. discussion.

Check the Palm Beach Post storm tracking map.

Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, called Florence’s growth to a major hurricane a “head-scratcher.”

Moderately high wind shear and marginally warm sea surface temperatures pointed to Florence decreasing in intensity in the short term.

“Florence shrugged off those seemingly hostile conditions,” Masters wrote in his Cat 6 blog.

Hurricane Florence is in a pocket of relatively moist air surrounded by Saharan dust.

AccuWeather hurricane experts said Florence’s track depends largely on a high pressure area in the Atlantic, which could either steer the storm out to see or send it toward the U.S. next week.

If current estimates are correct, “Florence will be in Bermuda waters on Tuesday,” said AccuWeather’s Dan Kottlowski.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast only goes 5 days out, so there are no official predictions deep into next week.

Behind Florence are two tropical waves that have chances of developing.

Invest 92L has been given a 90 percent chance of becoming a tropical system over the next five days with shower activity becoming better organized today, according to the NHC.

A wave about to leave Africa is getting a 30 percent chance of development over five days.

UPDATE 10:40 a.m.: Hurricane Florence has strengthened to a high-end Category 3 storm with sustained winds estimated near 125 mph and higher gusts.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale designates Cat 3 storms as having winds between 111 and 129 mph.

“Remarkably, Florence has continued to strengthen,” National Hurricane Center forecasters wrote in their 11 a.m. advisory. “Given the estimated maximum winds, Florence has been rapidly intensifying since yesterday, an event that was not foreseen by any intensity models or forecasters.”

Check the Palm Beach Post storm tracking map.

Florence could weaken during the next few days, but it expected to remain a strong hurricane into next week. Forecasters said they have “low confidence” in the intensity predictions.

“The track forecast also has its challenges,” forecasters said.

Florence is about 1,370 miles east-southeast of Bermuda and is no imminent threat to land. It is moving northwest at 13 mph.

With a wide spread in forecast models, the NHC has shifted Florence’s path slightly to the west, but “just like the intensity forecast, the track forecast is of low confidence.”

Two other areas being watched by the National Hurricane Center are a tropical wave off the coast of Africa and one about to exit the coast.

A wave a couple hundred miles west-southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands has a 90 percent chance of development over the  next five days. The wave that will leave the coast this week has a 30 percent chance of development.

NHC specialist Eric Blake commented about the uptick in activity in a social media post this morning.

UPDATE 8:35 a.m.: Hurricane Florence was upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane by the National Hurricane Center with 120 mph winds.

Forecasters issued a special statement at 8:35 a.m. to update the wind speeds. Florence is located about 1,405 miles east-southeast of Bermuda and heading west-northwest at 10 mph.

Check the Palm Beach Post storm tracking map.

Forecasters said recent satellite imagery show Florence continues to strengthen after a surprise jump to a Category 2 storm last night.

“This intensity forecast is still a bit murky,” NHC meteorologists wrote in their most recent advisory when they forecast weakening over the next two days in a “less than conducive environment.”

Florence was expected to max out at a 105 mph Category 2 hurricane before weakening to a Category 1 and then regaining Cat 2 status at the end of the 5-day forecast period.

Previous story: Gordon made landfall last night as a strong tropical storm, killing a child in Pensacola when it knocked a tree onto a mobile home.

According to the Pensacola News Journal, a large oak tree fell on the home before 10 p.m. as Gordon whipped Florida’s Panhandle.

Although earlier forecasts predicted Gordon would reach hurricane status before reaching the Gulf Coast, its eye crossed west of the Alabama-Mississippi border at about 11:15 p.m. EDT as a 70-mph tropical storm.

The last named tropical cyclone to make landfall in Mississippi was 2017’s Hurricane Nate.

Check the Palm Beach Post storm tracking map.

As of the 8 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center, Gordon had weakened to a depression with sustained winds of 35 mph. It was about 25 miles south-southeast of Jackson, Miss.

The Pensacola Regional Airport received a record 5.06 inches of rain Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service in Mobile, Ala.

TROPICAL STORM GORDON: How storm could affect harmful red tide bloom 

Elsewhere in the Atlantic basin, Hurricane Florence roared into a 105 mph Category 2 hurricane about 1,440 miles west of Bermuda.

The surprise Cat 2 was moving at 13 mph to the northwest as of the 5 a.m. advisory from the NHC. Florence is expected to weaken over the weekend before regaining some strength at the end of the 5-day forecast window.

Two other areas being watched by the National Hurricane Center are a tropical wave off the coast of Africa and one about to exit the coast.

A wave a couple hundred miles west-southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands has a 90 percent chance of development over the  next five days. The wave that will leave the coast this week has a 30 percent chance of development.

RELATED: Irma reached max intensity of 178 mph year ago today , top 15 moments

“A forecast weather pattern next week over the western Atlantic Basin is cause for some concern as we reach the typical peak of the Atlantic hurricane season,” said Jonathan Erdman, a meteorologist with “In the wake of both Gordon and Florence, there is the potential for one or two new named storms to form late this week or this weekend in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.”

AccuWeather is forecasting two to three new tropical systems to develop in the extra warm waters of the main development region of the Atlantic this weekend into next week.

RELATED: Four hurricane graphics to know before a storm hits

It’s too early to tell whether any of the systems will threaten land.

“However, the situation merits close monitoring for permanent and vacation interests in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic in the coming days,” AccuWeather forecasters said. 

The next two names on the 2018 storm list are Helene and Isaac.

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UPDATE: Gordon’s top winds rise as it moves northwest



Update 9 p.m.: Tropical Storm Gordon is steaming toward the Gulf Coast with top winds increasing to 60 mph, leaving Palm Beach County to deal with lingering rain and dangerous rip currents into Tuesday.

“The direct impact from Gordon is more or less all over for Palm Beach County,” said Arlena Moses, meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
“The main concern over the next day is rip currents. The risk remains high through Tuesday.”

The currents pose a danger to swimmers and small craft. The chance of rain remains at about 50 percent for most of Palm Beach County on Tuesday.

As the storm moves southwest of Tampa at 17 mph, the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama face a hurricane warning.

UPDATE 5 p.m.: Tropical Storm Gordon continues to speed northwest at 17 mph with 50 mph sustained winds.

With Gordon expected to intensify over the Gulf of Mexico, a hurricane warning has been posted for the Alabama and Mississippi coasts, an increase from a hurricane watch issued earlier today.

Gordon is expected to be a hurricane when it makes landfall along the central Gulf Coast, National Hurricane Center forecasters said in their 5 p.m. advisory.


Previous story: 

UPDATE 2 p.m.: The center of Tropical Storm Gordon is about 15 miles west-southwest of Marco Island with 50 mph winds.

The storm, which is moving at a swift 16 mph, is expected to strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River on Tuesday or Wednesday. Although the official National Hurricane Center forecast keeps Gordon a strong tropical storm, forecasters said there is a chance it could reach Category 1 strength before hitting the coast.

A hurricane watch is in effect for the areas west of the Florida-Alabama border to the mouth of the Pearl river.

UPDATE 11 a.m.: Hurricane watches have been issued for areas of the Alabama and Mississippi coastlines as Tropical Storm Gordon continues to organize as it moves closer to warm Gulf of Mexico waters.

National Hurricane Center forecasters said it is possible that Gordon could peak as a Category 1 hurricane just before landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Tropical storm warnings remain in effect for Miami-Dade, Monroe and Collier counties.

BOOKMARK The Palm Beach Post’s storm tracking map here.

UPDATE 10:51 a.m.: A significant weather advisory has been issued for areas from Greenacres through Jupiter as a strong thunderstorm threatens torrential rains and wind gusts up to 45 mph.

UPDATE 10:11 a.m.: The National Weather Service has issued a significant weather advisory for Palm Beach County as gusty showers move through areas including Boca Raton.

The advisory is in effect until 10:45 a.m.

“The main threat continues to be the flooding potential as more rain is expected through the afternoon and early evening hours,” NWS Miami meteorologists said in their morning forecast.

Previous story: Tropical Storm Gordon is moving quickly, expected to pass through southeast Florida by this afternoon, but tropical storm warnings are in effect for areas of Miami-Dade, Collier and Monroe counties as heavy rain continues.

Gordon, the seventh named storm of the season, was expected to form once it reached the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but spun up a little before the forecast predicted.

BOOKMARK The Palm Beach Post’s storm tracking map here.

Palm Beach County is under a significant weather advisory until 10 a.m. with National Weather Service meteorologists warning of strong thunderstorms east of Lantana bringing wind gusts of up to 55 mph and the possibility of funnel clouds. The storm is moving at 35 mph to the northwest.

A wind gust of 56 mph was recorded at Florida International University in Miami at 8:54 a.m.

Sustained winds this morning at Palm Beach International Airport have been running about 9 to 20 mph, with a 21 mph gust recorded before 2 a.m. Miami International Airport reported gusts of up to 35 mph before 9 a.m.

As of 9 a.m., Gordon was 60 miles southwest of Miami moving west-northwest at about 17 mph with sustained winds of 45 mph. An Air Force hurricane hunter is headed into Gordon this morning.

Gordon is still expected to remain a tropical storm, with winds topping out at 60 mph in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tropical Storm warnings are also in effect for the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Rainfall estimates for the 24 hours preceding 8 a.m. show the heaviest showers hitting Miami-Dade County, according to the South Florida Water Management District. But those numbers will increase as the gauges update this morning.

Rain estimates in the 24 hours preceding 8 a.m.

The Weather Prediction Center is forecasting rain totals as high as 5 inches through Wednesday morning in South Florida.


A year ago today, Hurricane Irma was a Category 3 storm about 885 miles east of the Leeward Islands. Florida would be in the cone by Sept. 4 and Irma hit South Florida seven days later as a Cat 4 hurricane.

See the top 15 Hurricane Irma moments here. 

September is the peak of hurricane season, and the National Hurricane Center is also watching Tropical Storm Florence, which is about 895 miles west-northwest of the Cabo Verde Islands with 60 mph winds. The official 5-day forecast for Florence tops it out at 65 mph.

But the track forecast is a little uncertain. Hurricane center experts still expect it to move northwest before it comes anywhere near Florida as it travels around the western edge of an area of high pressure.

“The main source of uncertainty in the track forecast is exactly when and to what extent Florence will make this turn,” NHC hurricane specialist David Zelinsky in his forecast.

Social media posts on red tide and blue-green algae have law enforcement on alert

A sign posted by Martin County Health Department warns to avoid contact with blue-green algae near the Port Mayaca locks on June 12, 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

A stream of online vitriol about Florida’s toxic algae disaster has piqued the interest of law enforcement, which is monitoring posts following comments about blowing up the Herbert Hoover Dike, vandalizing cars and “hanging state politicians.”

Whether the internet provocations are just disgruntled grousing or credible threats will be considered by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which is accepting reports from law enforcement agencies as well as its own review, said spokesman Eric Davis.

“You just can’t say you are going to blow up the dike or that you will be on the stairs of U.S. Sugar with ARs (assault rifles),” said Capt. Susan Harrelle of the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office, which covers the Lake Okeechobee town of Clewiston. “I understand the passion, but it’s really not the right way to go about it.”

RELATED: Special Report: A foul task – cleaning up Florida’s red tide corpses

The anger is rooted in the massive red tide fish kills on Florida’s southwest coast and the blue-green algae in the northern estuaries.

A South Florida Water Management District employee told the Lee County Sheriff’s Office she was in her work vehicle this month in Bonita Springs when a man pulled his car behind her in a Walgreens parking lot, trapping her in a parking space. She said he …. READ THE REST OF THE STORY AT MYPALMBEACHPOST.COM and find out why misleading information might be fanning the flames. 

BREAKING: State of emergency declared over Florida’s red tide

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency today over the ongoing harmful red tide bloom that is killing tons of marine life on the state’s west coast.

The declaration covers Collier, Lee Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Under the declaration, more than $100,000 will be given to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota to increase local efforts to save animals affected by red tide.

VISIT FLORIDA will also receive $500,000 to help tourism development boards in counties affected by red tide, and has been directed to start developing marketing campaigns that will follow the end of red tide blooms.

RELATED: SPECIAL REPORT: A foul task – cleaning up Florida’s red tide corpses

Gretchen Lovewell, Mote Marine Lab’s program manager for the team that investigates dead and stranded animals (C) and stranding technician, Jessica Blackburn take a break from a necropsies of a Loggerhead (L) and Kemp’s Ridley turtle in Sarasota, Florida, August 7, 2018. Blood and tissue samples will be tested to determine if the deadly toxins in red tide were the cause. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

“In addition to the emergency order, I am also directing a further $900,000 in grants for Lee County to clean up impacts related to red tide – bringing total red tide grant funding for Lee County to more than $1.3 million,” Scott said in a press release. “While we fight to learn more about this naturally-occurring phenomenon, we will continue to deploy all state resources and do everything possible to make sure that Gulf Coast residents are safe and area businesses can recover.”

RELATED: Can you vacuum up toxic algae? One Florida county will try

Scientists statewide and with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration are trying to understand the lengthy lifespan of this year’s bloom, which began in October 2017.

While not unprecedented — an 18-month bloom harassed the coast between 2004 and 2006 — Mote Marine staff scientist Tracy Fanara said the red tide has lasted longer into the spring and summer the past three years.

This summer, that means the devastating red tide is happening at the same time as a toxic blue-green algae bloom spreads in the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie Estuary.

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Algae laps the shore near the Deck Restaurant on the North Fork of the St. Lucie River in Stuart on June 12, 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Abnormally dry days ahead with drift of Saharan air

A drift of Saharan air will dry South Florida out over the next few days with rain chances as low as 10 percent mid week.

The National Weather Service in Miami is forecasting near record low levels of precipitable water, which is the measure of rain that would accumulate at the surface if all the water vapor in the air fell as rain.

Meteorologist Larry Kelly said normal precipitable water values are 1.8 to 1.9 this time of year, but they will fall to 1 to 1.3 through Friday.

“It will definitely be less moist and our dew points will come down to the low to mid-70s,” Kelly said. “The main thing with the drier air is the rain chances drop quite a bit.”

In West Palm Beach on Tuesday there is less than a 20 percent chance of rain. That drops to 10 percent Thursday. On Friday, rain chances are also 10 percent.

But even that is far below what’s normal for this time of year, Kelly said.

Typical daily rain chances are between 40 and 50 percent mid August, he said.

“The satellites are showing a large dusty air mass moving up through the Caribbean,” said Joseph Prospero, professor emeritus at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “We’ve had some very intense outbreaks and we can still get spotty rain.”

Prospero and Jason Dunion, a meteorologist with the University of Miami who tracks Saharan dust, said this summer has been dustier than normal.

Neither could say for sure what would cause more Saharan air this year.

Dunion said they will be looking at,the strength and position of the subtropical ridge over the Atlantic and recent drought trends over Africa.

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BREAKING: 2018 hurricane forecast amended with new prediction

Flagler Drive is raked by wind, rain and water from the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach Sunday afternoon, September 10, 2017 as winds from Hurricane Irma rake the county. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Confidence that 2018 will experience a below normal hurricane season increased substantially this week as global forces align to temper tropical activity.

An updated forecast released Thursday by the federal Climate Prediction Center is now calling for a 60 percent chance of a less active storm season, a hefty jump from a May forecast that predicted only a 25 percent probability of below normal activity.

Gerry Bell, the center’s lead seasonal hurricane forecaster, said the growing likelihood that a storm-thwarting El Nino will form in the fall combined with tropical Atlantic water temperatures that are the coldest since the 1990s were key factors in making the new prediction.

The forecast comes as Florida enters the peak of hurricane season between mid-August through October when 95 percent of hurricanes form. Already four named storms  – Alberto, Beryl, Chris and Debby – have spun up this season. Beryl and Chris both mustered hurricane strength.

As of Thursday afternoon, Tropical Storm Debby was still churning harmlessly in the northern Atlantic.

And hurricane experts warned Thursday there will be more storms.

“It’s not dead,” said Stanley Goldenberg, a meteorologist with the Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Storms can pop up quickly and we do expect more storms.”

STORM 2018: Hurricane Central

An average hurricane season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

RELATED: Will a hurricane be named after you this season? 

The hyperactive 2017 storm season produced 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes.

Bell said when the May forecast was released the chances an El Nino would form were only 45 percent.

An update this week puts the odds of an El Nino forming in the fall at 65 percent and up to 70 percent of a winter El Nino that could last into 2019. Bell compared this season to 2015, which had 11 named storms and 4 hurricanes.

“Please remember the hurricane seasonal outlooks are a general guide and do not predict landfalling storms,” Bell said. “Whether or not a storm strikes land is determined by the weather patterns in place when the storm approaches and those are generally not predictable until five to seven days in advance.”

Earth was put on an El Niño watch in June, but it’s not officially declared present until ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are more than 1 degree above normal and are expected to maintain that temperature for six months.

After that, it can take 30 to 60 days for the atmosphere to respond.

The onset of El Niño occurs in tandem with the relaxation of the trade winds — those Earth-skimming easterlies that have guided sailing ships across the world’s oceans for centuries.

With the trade winds reduced, warm water that has piled up in the western Pacific Ocean and around Indonesia rushes back toward the east. That movement of warm water shifts rainfall patterns and the formation of deep tropical thunderstorms. The exploding storms whose cloud tops can touch the jet stream disrupt upper air patterns so winds come more out of the west.

The west winds create shear in the Atlantic, which can be deadly to budding hurricanes.

“The main message should be that no matter what this or any other prediction says that people must treat this like the peak of hurricane season and be prepared,” Goldenberg said. “Remember, 1992 was overall a very slow year.”

Category 5 Hurricane Andrew – the first named storm of the 1992 season – devastated areas of South Florida when made landfall Aug. 24.

At least 20 research groups, private companies and universities churn out annual hurricane forecasts, including the University of Arizona, The Weather Co. and Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center.

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Climatology shows the hurricane season typically peaks in mid-August through October.