The 2022 Atlantic hurricane season is expected to be busy, with a 65 percent chance of being above average. There’s also a wildcard in the mix, raising the possibility of more severe storms in the Gulf this year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicated in its season prediction briefing released today that 14 to 21 tropical storms could become powerful enough to be recognized this season. The normal Atlantic hurricane season has roughly 14 named storms and begins on June 1st. Colorado State University forecasted 19 named storms for this year.

Six to ten storms are expected to strengthen into hurricanes, according to NOAA. NOAA also predicted three to six significant hurricanes with wind speeds of at least 111 miles per hour, categorized as Category 3 or higher.

A worrying development has also occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. For this time of year, the Loop Current, a warm water current, has moved remarkably far north. The current, which meanders like a river through the sea, transports warmer water from the Caribbean to the generally cooler seas off the US Gulf Coast. Because storms feed on heat energy, this is especially worrying news for the season.

“It’s higher octane fuel,” explains Nick Shay, an oceanography professor at the University of Miami. “It’s the Gulf’s 800-pound gorilla.”

Shay is concerned that the Loop Present’s current behavior resembles that of the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season, when Katrina, Rita, and Wilma wreaked havoc on Gulf Coast cities.

“We had what’s known as the hurricane Trifecta in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005,” Shay explains. After crossing paths with the Loop Current’s warmer waters, Katrina and Rita exploded into Category 5 storms. The Loop Current also strengthened Hurricanes Ida in 2021 and Harvey in 2017.

The water in the Loop Current is likewise saltier. The Loop Current’s temperature and salinity differences from the rest of the Gulf prevent ocean water mixing, which would ordinarily lower surface temperatures.

As a result, the current retains heat at far greater depths than the Gulf around it. Water temperatures of 78 degrees Fahrenheit can be found up to 500 feet below the surface in the current. Temperatures of this magnitude rarely exceed 100 feet below the surface outside of the current. “There’s a significant change,” Shay adds.

However, Shay warns that it’s too early to say whether something similar to 2005 would occur this season. It will be determined by whether or not storms approach the Loop Current (or toward large circling pools of hot water that spin-off from the current, called eddies). If storms arise at optimal atmospheric circumstances with low wind shear, the Loop Current will be able to successfully supercharge them.

A storm can be destabilized or weakened by strong wind shear, or changes in wind speed and direction. However, throughout the hurricane season, a weather pattern known as La Nia is forecast to keep wind shear low, thus increasing the odds of larger storms emerging.

This year’s Atlantic season will be influenced by an “increased” west African monsoon, according to NOAA. In most seasons, the West African monsoon, a major wind system, can generate stronger easterly waves that “seed many of the biggest and longest-lived hurricanes,” according to NOAA’s season outlook.

Stronger hurricanes are expected to become more common as climate change heats up the world’s oceans. Warmer than average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea are also likely to boost hurricane activity this season, NOAA said today.

There’s also evidence that hurricanes have begun to intensify more quickly and keep their strength for longer after making landfall as global average temperatures rise. The Loop Current’s warm eddies also seem to hold more heat than they have in the past, Shay says, although scientists can’t yet pinpoint why.

Should NOAA’s predictions for 2022 come true, it would be the seventh consecutive above-normal season for the Atlantic.