With an almost frightening unanimity, experts are predicting the hurricane season that begins Tuesday will fall somewhere between overactive and "historic."

The government released an outlook Thursday that is quite similar to, if considerably more elastic than, those already published by the major private forecasters.

The only question is just how far above normal the numbers of storms will be, said Gerry Bell, a federal hurricane expert.

Officially, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling for 14 to 23 named storms - those with winds of at least 39 m.p.h. - to form in the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, before the season ends Nov. 30.

Of those, eight to 14 would become hurricanes, packing winds of 74 m.p.h. or better, and three to seven would grow into major storms, with winds of 111 m.p.h. or greater.

In a typical year, by NOAA's count, 11 named storms form, with six of those hurricanes, and two majors.

La Niña

Bell, the lead hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center outside Washington, said the tropical Pacific was the key to how busy the season would be. In 2009, those waters became unusually warm, the condition known as El Niño. The warm waters generate strong west-to-east shearing winds that can snuff out burgeoning tropical storms in the Atlantic Basin.

But El Niño has faded, and Bell says La Niña - a cooling of the Pacific waters - may develop.

The consensus is that cooler waters in the Pacific, warm waters in the Atlantic Basin, favorable upper-air patterns, and the continuation of an active hurricane era that began in 1995, all spell trouble for the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts - and U.S. taxpayers. The treasury is still down $18.7 billion in flood-insurance losses, largely the result of the incredible 2005 season.

Roiling oil

And if the oil continues spewing, hurricanes in the gulf could make for ugly black tides on the Gulf Coast this summer.

The NOAA forecast numbers track closely with those in the outlooks posted by Accu-Weather Inc., in State College; WSI Corp., in Massachusetts; Colorado State University, a pioneer in long-range hurricane forecasting; and the British service, Tropical Storm Risk.

Accu-Weather sees 16 to 18 named storms; WSI, 18; Colorado State, 15; and Tropical Risk, 16.

Although no one predicts specific landfalls, all agree that the number of storms would make it likely that some portion of the U.S. coast is likely to get whacked.

Said WSI's Crawford, "It's looking more and more like a historic season this year."

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.