FREDERICTON -- In what could signal a frightening new fact of life in the age of global warming, Canadian and U.S. forecasters are warning that another major hurricane season is brewing in the Atlantic Ocean.

The 2006 hurricane season officially opens on June 1, and already scientists are telling people living in eastern North America that numerous storms are predicted, with as many as five major hurricanes packing winds of 180 km/h or greater.

"It's kind of comparable to what we were looking at last year at this time," says Bob Robichaud, a meteorologist with the Canadian Hurricane Centre in Dartmouth, N.S.

"Last year we were looking at 12 to 15 storms and this year the forecast is for about 17. No one would go out on a limb and say it is going to be just as bad as last year, but the indications are there that it is still going to be another active season, almost twice as active as normal."

Last year's hurricane season was the most destructive on record.

There were 27 named storms, 15 hurricanes and seven intense hurricanes during the 2005 season. The worst damage was along the U.S. Gulf coast.

Scientists with the Colorado State University hurricane forecast team say the same factors that contributed to last year's violent season are still in play this year.

"The Atlantic Ocean remains anomalously warm, and tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures have continued to cool," says Colorado University forecaster Phil Klotzbach, explaining two of the key triggers for hurricanes.

The Eastern seaboard has been locked in an active storm period for the past decade and while these seasons are normally cyclical, no one knows when, or if, the active period will end.

"Is this global warming? From now on will we see only active hurricane seasons? That's the big question," says Canadian weather guru Dave Phillips of Environment Canada.

While there is no scientific proof that the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is breeding more hurricanes, Phillips says global warming could be contributing to the unusual power of the big storms, like last year's Katrina.

"We are seeing stronger hurricanes - almost a 100 per cent increase in category fours and fives," he says.

"When they do develop, they're a lot bigger, tougher and have more destructive power. They stay together longer. This is the concern. They seem to have more power. That could have a connection to global warming - the fact the atmosphere has changed and ocean temperatures have warmed."

Forecasters stress that there is no way to know, at this point, how many big storms will make landfall or whether any will be able to pick up enough steam to significantly affect Eastern Canada.

That's what happened in 2003, when hurricane Juan stoked up energy from unusually warm waters off northeastern North America and blasted the Maritimes, causing death and destruction in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and parts of New Brunswick.

Phillips says that despite this year's grim forecast, a lot can happen to shut down offshore hurricanes and prevent them from causing onshore harm.

"The temperature of the water has to be right, the winds have to be just perfect, the timing has to be just so and the depth of the water has to be just so," Phillips says.

"It's like baking a souffle. A lot of things have to come together and if someone slams the door, it won't rise."

Phillips adds that, curiously, what happens in the Pacific with the La Nina phenomenon can have major impact on the Atlantic hurricane season.

La Nina refers to a pattern of usually cold surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The east-to-west winds of La Nina tend to be more favourable for producing hurricanes in the Atlantic.

While La Nina has been the dominating factor in the Pacific for the past two years, it appears to be easing.

NASA oceanographers say they believe La Nina will not affect Atlantic hurricanes this year.

Whatever happens, people who have experienced the wrath of a major hurricane are taking precautions.

A 2005 Environment Canada survey of about 500 Halifax-area residents, obtained by The Canadian Press through Access to Information, found that a majority of respondents - 53 per cent - now feel vulnerable to hurricanes.

It also found that 71 per cent of respondents would do things differently if another hurricane like Juan is forecast for the area.

Nova Scotia resident Lynn Brooks, who lives near Halifax, was one of thousands of Maritimers who experienced property damage and power outages during Juan.

Brooks says she now keeps extra water in her home, because if the power goes out, her well goes off.

"I think I'm like a lot of people in this region," she says.

"We will never taken another hurricane warning for granted."