This time last year, most South Floridians wouldn't have known the difference between the Loop Current and Fruit Loops.
They sure do now, with dubious thanks to the Gulf oil disaster.
The same oceanographic pattern that could drag oil from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic -- and dump tar balls onto South Florida beaches -- already is a predicted culprit in a season promising eight hurricanes, half of them ``major,'' according to top weather forecasters.
William M. Gray and Philip J. Klotzbach, forecasters at Colorado State University, predict 15 named storms, while Ken Reeves, senior meteorologist and director of forecasting operations for AccuWeather.com , predicts 16 to 18, with a ``higher-than-normal number of impacts, which is not a good thing.''
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In 160 years of record keeping, only eight seasons have brought 16 or more storms, according to Accuweather.com.
The Loop Current has always been with us. Likened to an underwater conveyor belt, an ``aquatic highway,'' or a river within the sea, it is a warm, swift current that enters the Gulf from the Caribbean between Mexico and Cuba.
It flows clockwise, first northwest, then east into a hairpin turn taking it southeast toward the Florida Keys and the Florida Straits.
``Here, the waters of the Loop Current flow northward along the U.S. coast and become the Gulf Stream,'' meteorologist Jeffrey Masters writes on the Weather Underground website. Masters was a Miami-based ``hurricane hunter'' for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aircraft Operations Center in the 1980s.
The Loop Current ``is one of the fastest currents in the Atlantic Ocean,'' he writes. ``The current is about . . . 125 to 190 miles wide and . . . 2,600 feet deep, and is present in the Gulf of Mexico about 95 percent of the time.
``During summer and fall, the Loop Current provides a deep . . . layer of very warm water that can provide a huge energy source for any lucky hurricanes that might cross over.''
If a storm lingers over the Loop Current, ``it has a chance to become stronger,'' said Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center.
At the moment, it's more of a problem to oil watchers than storm watchers on Florida's east coast.
Klotzbach, lead author of the Colorado forecasts, warned that ``the strong winds of a hurricane would potentially drive the oil slick farther inland, which could pose a great environmental hazard.''
But according to Reeves, ``the actual oil isn't going to play a significant role relative to the development of tropical systems. It's relatively small and its ability to cover the ocean is limited.''
He added that ``temperatures are a little higher than normal in the equatorial Atlantic, which suggests a more long track kind of system. You could have the big, swooping storms that hit Florida or a congregation of storms through the Caribbean. . . . But we're not ringing the panic bell for Florida just yet.''
Researchers at the American Meteorological Society's 29th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology in Tucson earlier this month unveiled a ``global forecasting system that predicts global weather patterns and where hurricanes will go, which is substantially improved over last year,'' said Chris Landsea.
``We're doing quite a bit better job with track forecasting,'' Landsea said. ``Compared to Hurricane Andrew [in 1992], our errors are less than half.''