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More active Atlantic hurricane season forecast for 2016

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(Reuters) — Early forecasts from meteorologists suggest the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season will be more active than normal partly because of the expected end of the El Nino weather pattern in the next few months.

Weather forecasters have linked the El Nino phenomenon, which is a warming of the water in the central Pacific Ocean, to weak hurricane seasons in the Atlantic.

The current El Nino, which started early last year, was the strongest since 1997 and is expected to end in the late spring or early summer, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.

MDA Weather Services, a unit of Canadian information technology company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., forecast there would be more storms this year than normal, with 14 named storms and seven hurricanes, three of which will be major hurricanes.

Meteorologists at AccuWeather, a private weather forecaster based in Pennsylvania, also predicted more storms than normal this year, with an expected 14 named storms and eight hurricanes, four of which will be major hurricanes.

AccuWeather also said three of the named storms would likely make landfall in the United States.

Tropical Storm Risk, a British-based forecaster that predicts cyclone risk for insurance companies and others, however, forecast Atlantic hurricane activity would be about 20% below the 66-year (1950-2015) long-term average and 15% below the 10-year (2006-2015) average.

Hurricanes don't pack the same punch for the U.S. natural gas market as they did a decade ago because the bulk of the nation's gas production has moved from the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico region to shale formations located far from the coast, such as the Marcellus shale field in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

U.S. gas futures hit record highs of $15 per million British thermal units in 2005 in the months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the Gulf Coast. At that time, over 20% of the nation's dry gas was produced in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Spurred in part by those high prices, producers figured out how to use technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to profitably unlock gas trapped in shale rocks, sparking the so-called "shale revolution."

Today, the nation's seven biggest shale fields provide more than 60% of dry gas production, while federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico account for a mere 4% of the total.

In 2015, a mostly quiet hurricane season, there were 11 named storms, including four hurricanes, two of which were major ones.