JUST IN: Federal study launched to revamp hurricane cone of error

A study to makeover what is probably the most maligned and misunderstood weather graphic in history is underway as federal meteorologists look to redo the hurricane cone of error – a spotlight of fear that has earned the nickname “cone of terror.”

The project, which is being conducted by the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, is reviewing all of the National Hurricane Center’s communication products, but the cone is taking priority.

Robbie Berg, an NHC specialist, is the informal lead of the nascent project, which is yet unnamed. He said the cone is in the top spot for study because of people’s familiarity with it, but also their chronic misuse of it.

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“We know there are limitations with the cone graphic, and the concern is people think that if you’re not in it, you’re safe,” said Ed Rappaport, acting director of the National Hurricane Center. “The cone graphic is almost impossible to replace because it’s so ingrained, but make we could add to it, or introduce something that could become even more popular.”

The 5 a.m., Sept. 4, 2017,  update on Hurricane Irma’s path from the National Hurricane Center.

The cone, which shows the track forecast for tropical cyclones, was discussed Tuesday at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando during a seminar on what changes emergency managers and local weather forecasters would like to see in how hurricane information is communicated.

Some suggestions included adding a time when damaging winds will end so officials have an idea when cleanup can begin. Emergency managers said they would also like probability forecast for a storm’s potential for rapid intensification. Predicting rapid intensification is a challenge for forecasters. During the 2017 hurricane season, there were 39 incidents of rapid intensification. Seven were accurately forecast.

Rapid intensification is defined as an increase in wind speeds of 34 mph or more over a 24-hour period.

Still, the cone took center stage in Tuesday’s discussion.

“We know we are asking a lot of this graphic, and I’m not sure it serves us as well as we think it does,” said Nate Johnson, director of weather operations for NBC Universal-owned television stations.

While people may have grasped that the storm can go anywhere inside the cone, and 33 percent of the time outside of the cone, the second they are no longer inside the hazy white funnel, they breathe a sigh of relief – they shouldn’t.

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Katie Webster, a natural hazards expert with the North Carolina Emergency Management Agency, said people dropped their guard after Hurricane Matthew’s cone of error moved away from the Carolinas in 2016.

“That’s why three days later we were rescuing people off their roof,” Webster said. “How do we convey the forecast cone is not an impact cone. The community knows the cone, but we also had 10-plus inches of rain after Matthew.”

Twenty-four people died in North Carolina from freshwater flooding during Hurricane Matthew, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Example of the earliest arrival time of tropical storm-force winds.

The NHC and local National Weather Service forecasting offices have added multiple graphics in recent years that depict rainfall amounts, arrival time of damaging winds and storm surge heights.

But the cone, Berg said, is an “institution.” People expect to see it, they talk about it at water coolers and over dinner, they pick apart the slightest shift in its location and debate whether it means the bulls eye has moved.

It was first introduced in 2002, and has undergone three tweaks, including the use of more lively colors and a wind field circle that shows how far tropical storm, or hurricane-force winds extend. The yellow blob can stretch well outside the cone, indicating areas where damage can occur.

Still, people struggle to interpret the risks, said Bryan Norcross, a former Weather Channel hurricane expert who saved lives during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew while forecasting for a Miami TV station. In February, Norcross joined former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield working for an ABC affiliate that covers Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

“The way it works now is the National Hurricane Center deals out all these cards and whoever is on the receiving end has to gather up all these cards and put it into one card,” Norcross said. “My sense is a real step forward would be to have an aggregated public advisory with the key message and important graphics.”

Berg said the first step in the study will be figuring out how people use the cone graphic, including utility companies, the military, law enforcement and the average person.

He cautioned against filling it up with too many pieces of information, which may reduce the understanding rather than increase it.

“If you start layering too many hazards onto onto the graphic, people won’t know what the biggest hazard is,” Berg said. “It has to be simple.”

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