It isn’t storm hype, it’s storm reporting

Every time a potential tropical system fizzles, the media is blamed for storm hyping.

At the The Palm Beach Post this week, we worked hard to keep people updated on Invest 99-L after the National Hurricane Center highlighted it as an area to “investigate” with straight reporting.

Stories included multiple interviews with hurricane experts and meteorologists from The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, Colorado State University, AccuWeather and the National Weather Service in Miami.

The National Hurricane Center spokesman was also quoted multiple times saying it was too early to speculate on the potential impacts the invest may  have on South Florida, which is tough to swallow when the center’s own area of development includes all of South Florida.

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In this post, I’ll try to explain why we reported this system the way we did. But know this: our reporting was not meant to panic you, it was meant to prepare you.

That’s something Weather Channel hurricane expert Michael Lowry addressed in a blog by Marshall Shepherd, director of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia. 

“Since covering storms at The Weather Channel, I’ve observed that while severe weather is most difficult to cover and winter weather arguably most difficult to forecast, tropical weather is the most difficult to communicate. This week has really highlighted why,” Lowry said in Shepherd’s blog. “My personal opinion is we get tangled up in meteorologicial uncertainty at the expense of communicating potential impacts.”

 

There is value in experts weighing in on a potential system beyond the National Hurricane Center’s tropical weather outlook, which is made four times daily.

One issue is that the National Hurricane Center cannot release a storm tracking map, or issue watches and warnings until a system is officially declared a tropical cyclone.

A tropical cyclone is a generic term used for a low pressure system that forms over warm tropical seas and has a closed center of circulation.  Tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes are all considered tropical cyclones, although a cyclone doesn’t get a name until it is a tropical storm with winds of 39 mph or higher.

The concern is if a tropical cyclone doesn’t form until it is very near shore, watches and warnings won’t be issued until the last minute. If the media holds off reporting on a storm until it becomes a cyclone, then there may not be widespread awareness that something might be coming.

Tropical Storm Ana, May 2015. Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Tropical Storm Ana, May 2015. Credits: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

The National Hurricane Center recognizes this as an issue.

Read: How early is too early to alert on a potential storm? 

Beginning as early as the 2017 hurricane season, the center hopes to have the ability to issue watches and warnings for disturbances prior to official cyclone genesis. The alerts would be for “potential” tropical cyclones.

The impetus for the changes are systems such as last year’s Tropical Storm Bill. The hurricane center was relatively confident it would become an organized storm, but it couldn’t issue advisories until it met the technical definition of a cyclone.

By the time Bill gained these characteristics, it was nearly on top of the Texas coast.

The first advisory for Tropical Storm Bill was issued just 12 hours before it made landfall in Texas.

The first advisory for Tropical Storm Bill was issued just 12 hours before it made landfall in Texas.

In a blog written by James Franklin, chief of the National Hurricane Center’s hurricane specialists unit, following criticism of the center’s forecasting of Bill, he described the delicate balance the center has to create between science, safety and credibility.

“Couldn’t NHC have called the disturbance a tropical storm anyway, in the interest of enhanced preparedness?” Franklin wrote. “Yes, but what if the disturbance never becomes a tropical storm? … Naming it early risks the credibility of the National Weather Service and NHC, and endangers a trust we’ve worked for decades to establish.”

More recently, the hurricane center was criticized for not naming what would become Hurricane Earl after it had already raked Hispaniola and was heading for Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Tropical Storm Earl hit Belize as a Category 1 hurricane.

Tropical Storm Earl hit Belize as a Category 1 hurricane.

In fact, the two island nations took the unusual step of not waiting for an official designation from the hurricane center and issued watches and warnings on its own.

“If the storm is right next door to you, what are you going to do?” said Karry Powery, a meteorologist with the Cayman Islands National Weather Service, in an August 3 Palm Beach Post story. “In terms of lead time, we don’t want the government and the public to just jump up and have to make last-minute preparations. That is problematic.”

 

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