Hurricane center worries earlier forecasts may spur distrust

Advances in technology have allowed meteorologists to predict severe weather earlier than ever, forecasting hurricane tracks five days ahead of the storm with increasing accuracy.

But with the National Hurricane Center beginning to predict a system’s track even before it organizes into a depression or tropical cyclone, some experts fear the public’s reaction. Will there be unnecessary panic if a five-day “cone of uncertainty” from a low-pressure system or a tropical wave envelopes an area?

Employees Sandra Rodriguez and Edbbyn Valdivia help cover windows with Armor Screen as a precaution against Tropical Storm Erika at The Brazilian Court hotel in Palm Beach on August 27, 2015. Over 300 windows will be covered with the special material that protects the windows but still lets in light. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Employees Sandra Rodriguez and Edbbyn Valdivia help cover windows with Armor Screen as a precaution against Tropical Storm Erika at The Brazilian Court hotel in Palm Beach on August 27, 2015. Over 300 windows will be covered with the special material that protects the windows but still lets in light. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Or, and maybe worse, will the public lose confidence in the hurricane forecasts if there are large error rates in the early predictions for the pre-cyclone systems?

The concerns were raised last week at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando where 1,500 emergency managers and meteorologists met to discuss advances in forecasts and storm preparation and the best ways tocommunicate with the public during and after a natural disaster.

The five-day forecasts for storm systems that have yet to develop won’t begin until 2017, but hurricane center officials are anxious about their debut.

Employees move four by eight foot sheets of plywood to lower levels during early preparation for customers needing supplies for Tropical Storm Erika at the Home Depot in Jupiter on August 26, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Employees move four by eight foot sheets of plywood to lower levels during early preparation for customers needing supplies for Tropical Storm Erika at the Home Depot in Jupiter on August 26, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

“We know the track forecast will not be nearly as accurate,” said James Franklin, chief of the center’s hurricane specialists unit. “It’s tough because we know the errors will be larger, they’re harder to forecast, but we’ve gotten to the point where the benefits outweigh the risk.”

The impetus for the changes are systems such as last year’s Tropical Storm Bill. The center was relatively confident it would become an organized storm, but it couldn’t issue advisories until it met the technical definition of having organized thunderstorm activity and a closed circulation. By the time Bill gained these characteristics, it was nearly on top of the Texas coast.

To read the rest of the story including what Palm Beach County officials think click here. 

Is the hurricane cone of uncertainty outdated as a communication tool?

The National Hurricane Center is struggling to improve its communication with the public after two difficult forecasts last year triggered premature preparations and confusion. 

The challenge is how to convey the uncertainty of forecasts when the confidence of predictions, such as for Tropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Joaquin, is low.

New storm surge maps go into effect for the 2016 hurricane season.
New storm surge maps go into effect for the 2016 hurricane season.

Improvements include working closer with the media, but some of the effort is also on the introduction of new products and an emphasis on lesser-used tools already available that focus on the impact of storms over just the forecast cone.

In fact, during a discussion at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando this morning, a panel that included National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb, questioned whether the storm forecast cone is obsolete.

The cone only deals with location, without consideration of forecast uncertainty, storm surge concerns or wind speed probabilities.

The path of Tropical Storm Erika had most of the state in its cone at one point, but never made it past Hispaniola.
The path of Tropical Storm Erika had most of the state in its cone at one point, but never made it past Hispaniola.

“I’ve had a long-standing problem with the cone and believe it has outlived its benefits,” said Craig Setzer, a chief meteorologist for WFOR-TV in Miami and a panel member. “That was evident with Erika and Joaquin when people saw the cone five days out and believed the hurricane would be approaching the coast in that time frame.”

Tropical Storm Erika, once forecast to become a Category 1 hurricane with Florida in its sights, never made it past Hispaniola.

This year, the National Hurricane Center is introducing new storm surge maps that will show how far inland forecasters believe water will go and how deep it could get.

The first map will usually be issued at the same time as the initial hurricane watch or, in some cases, with a tropical storm watch. The map is based on the latest forecast track and intensity for the tropical cyclone, and takes into account likely forecast errors.

Already in use are wind speed probability maps, but Knabb acknowledged they don’t get as much attention as the cone and can be difficult to interpret.

During Erika, the risk of hurricane- force winds hitting Palm Beach County never went above 4 percent. The risk for tropical storm-force winds was 50 percent at its highest.

Wind speed probabilities with Tropical Storm Erika.
Wind speed probabilities with Tropical Storm Erika.

“We know the cone has serious limitations,” Knabb said. “We are trying to create useful, snazzy, beneficial new products. We realize we can’t just leave the cone graphic the way it is forever.”

What the Palm Beach Post wrote: Tropical Storm Erika difficult to forecast. 

Also newly implemented after Erika, where Florida declared a state of emergency although watches and warnings were never issued for the state, are talking points that boil down what hurricane forecasters want the public to know without the technical jargon that can be present in the formal forecast discussions.

“It’s surprising how complex communicating a hurricane can be,” said Setzer. “People hear my message and come up with a totally different response.”

Talking points created after communication problems with Tropical Storm Erika.
Talking points created after communication problems with Tropical Storm Erika.

 

 

New storm surge map shows deadliest areas during hurricane

Hurricane experts repeat a mantra that more people die from storm surge than high winds during tropical storms and hurricanes.

To that end, the National Hurricane Center has been working on storm surge maps that will alert coastal areas about potential flooding and how high the water may get depending on proximity to the shore.

Those maps become operational this year and will be issued when the initial hurricane watch is made. In some cases it will be issued with the initial tropical storm watch.

The storm surge maps began an experimental phase in 2014.

A sample storm surge map for Fort Myers shows how far inland the water could reach from a tropical cyclone.
A sample storm surge map for Fort Myers shows how far inland the water could reach from a tropical cyclone.

“The problem is people prepare for wind and make assumptions about the strength of a hurricane based on wind,” said National Hurricane Center Director Richard Knabb in a presentation last year to Palm Beach County emergency managers. “We need to be thinking about all of the hazards.”

What would happen if Palm Beach County was hit by a Category 5 hurricane. 

Between 1963 and 2012, 49 percent of tropical cyclone deaths were storm surge related. Another 27 percent were attributed to rain accumulation.

Just 8 percent of deaths were from wind.

In 2005, Palm Beach County had just two evacuation zones. Now there are five based on the category of hurricane and how much water it will push ashore. Wind damage is less of a concern than storm surge.

“Wind gets the headlines, but it’s other hazards as well that we should be aware of,” said National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Robert Molleda, who spoke at the same 2015 seminar as Knabb.

Hermine’s a hurricane so how do you pronounce it?

The 2016 hurricane season began June 1, but the National Hurricane Center started pushing out the season’s names months ago.

And maybe that’s because some of them have some tricky pronunciations.

Most are fairly self-explanatory, such as Bonnie (BAH-nee) and Richard (RIH-churd). And we’ve already scratched easy Alex off the list when the first hurricane of 2016 formed in January south of the Azores.

But how about Hermine? or Virginie?

Hurricane Hermine is pronounced her-MEEN. Hopefully, we will not reach the bottom of the list, but Hurricane Virginie will be pronounced vir-JIN-ee.

2016 tropical cyclone names
2016 tropical cyclone names

In a previous blog, I explained how and why hurricanes are named.

According to National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen, names selected by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) are usually common names associated with the ethnicity of the basin that would be impacted by the storms.

See full name list here.

“For example, in the Atlantic basin, the majority of storms have English names, but there are also a number of Hispanic-origin names as well as a few French names,” Feltgen said. “For the eastern North Pacific basin, the majority of names are of Hispanic origin, as the impacted countries are Mexico, Guatemala, and other nations of Central America.”

Beginning in 1953, Atlantic tropical storms have been named from lists originated by the National Hurricane Center. Six lists are in rotation and they are now maintained and updated by the WMO.

A storm name can be removed from the list if it is particularly deadly or costly.

For example, there will be no more Hurricane Andrew, after the devastating 1992 Category 5 storm. And the 2004 and 2005 seasons saw a whole slew of names retired from the list including, Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma.

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Chances increase for Atlantic cyclone, hurricane-force winds detected

The strange little system in the Atlantic that seems not to know what season it is has a 40 percent chance of becoming something more over the next 5 days.

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National Hurricane Center forecasters noted yesterday that the low pressure system, which is 900 miles east of Bermuda, is producing maximum winds of hurricane force, although no specific speed was recorded.

The low could gradually acquire some subtropical or tropical characteristics over the next few days as it moves southeastward and then into the eastern subtropical Atlantic.

Forecasters warned that regardless of development, the storm is expected to produced hazardous marine conditions over portions of the central eastern Atlantic for the  next few days.

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Star Wars weather: West Palm Beach, it’s like Yavin 4 out there

Want to know what planet in the Star Wars universe your weather most resembles?

Well, one intrepid video and web producer has created a website where you can pop in the name of your town and find out what planet you’d most likely be living on if you were a Star Wars character (and what character would you be?)

Tom Scott created Star Wars Weather Forecast.

When I typed in West Palm Beach last week, it told me I may as well be living in Dagobah  – “Hot and wet, and not in a good way. Also, Yoda might be hiding somewhere.”

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This  morning, it’s apparently more like Yavin 4, the jungle-covered 4th moon in orbit around the gas giant Yavin.

I came across Scott’s site while reading a great blog by Marshall Shepherd in Forbes. Shepherd is director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.

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He is a self-proclaimed weather and Star Wars geek and wanted to put the two together for his students.

“While many of the planets/moons in the series likely were monoclimes (e.g. snowball climate or other other extreme climate state), I would like to present them in a way to teach about Earth’s climate system,” Shepherd wrote.

The ice planet Hoth is a monoclime, like many planets in Star Wars.
The ice planet Hoth is a monoclime, like many planets in Star Wars.

It can get a little technical, but he goes into explain that Tatooine would likely be an area of large-scale sinking motion, similar to most major deserts of Earth, which are located in the sinking branch of the Hadley Circulation. 

The planet Hoth is also explained, as well as Dagobah and Mustafar.

It’s an interesting discussion that also brings in Dan Zehr’s discussion, “Studying Skywalkers” the Meaning of Weather in Star Wars. 

“Weather matters,” Zehr writes. “Poe used it often to reflect the fall of the Usher household in the titular short story, and Twain used it to mirror Huckleberry Finn’s loneliness and melancholy in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Star Wars often offers this insight as well.”

2016 hurricane season, 97% chance of named storm hitting U.S.

Colorado State University’s Department of Atmospheric Science stopped doing quantitative December hurricane forecasts for pending storm seasons in 2012.

But researchers are still issuing a more qualitative discussion of the factors that will influence the 2016 hurricane season, including the climatological chances that the U.S. and individual states will get hit by a tropical storm, hurricane or major hurricane.

This year’s discussion, released last week, relies on two main events for its hurricane predictions; whether El Nino will remain a strong influence through summer next year and the potency of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO).

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El Nino is known to knock down hurricanes by creating strong westerly wind shear, such as we saw during the 2015 hurricane season.

The AMO is a longer-term phenomenon that impacts sea-surface temperatures. Warm sea surface temperatures are like candy to growing hurricanes.

While CSU’s study, which was written by hurricane expert Philip Kotzbach with assistance from William Gray, looks generally at four scenarios affecting hurricane frequency and strength, it also gives climatological landfall probabilities for 2016. The probabilities are long term chances, taking into account data from the 20th century.

“While we are not issuing a quantitative forecast in this early outlook, we can still provide interested readers with the climatological probabilities of landfall for various portions of the United States coastline,” Klotzbach wrote.

For all of the U.S., Klotzbach said there is a 97 percent chance of a named storm making landfall. That could mean a tropical storm, hurricane or major hurricane.

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Last week’s discussion also gives the climatological probabilities that a hurricane or major hurricane will impact specific states.

Climatological chance for a hurricane landfall in 2016
Climatological probabilities for a hurricane landfall in 2016.

Klotzbach notes that none of the 27 major hurricanes that have formed since Wilma in 2005 made a U.S. landfall.

“The 10-year period that the U.S. has gone without any major landfalls exceeds the previous record of eight years set between 1861 and 1868,” he wrote.

But why?

“There is obviously a luck component that has played a significant role,” Klotzbach said.

He explains another part of why in a blog for the Capital Weather Gang written with Brian McNoldy. Basically an exploration of how an east coast low pressure system may be steering hurricanes away from the U.S.

Florida is singled out as being “remarkably lucky” to have not been impacted by a hurricane since Wilma. Klotzbach said there has been a marked decrease in hurricanes hitting the Florida peninsula over the past 50 years.

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Bob Henson, a meteorologist and blogger for Weather Underground said CSU’s recent discussion makes him even more “eager to see how this very uncertain hurricane season will unfold.”

“As one would expect, the skill of these outlooks steadily improves as the hurricane season nears,” he wrote in a blog last week.  “Even if it’s too soon right now to expect an accurate forecast for 2016, the latest thoughts from CSU make me even more eager to see how this very uncertain hurricane season will unfold.”