Four Innovative Ways Hurricane Forecasts Have Improved to Save Lives

By Mark Leberfinger, Staff Writer
June 1, 2014; 3:23 AM ET
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Forecasters have learned more in the last 50 years about hurricanes, one of the most powerful weather phenomena on Earth, thanks to many technological advances.

Although there have been devastating hurricanes such as Sandy, Katrina and Andrew, the advances have helped protect life and property.

The forecasting evolution included computers, satellites and aircraft.

Various computer models are shown for the various tracks Hurricane Sandy could have taken while in the Caribbean. (Photo/NOAA/GFDL).

1. Computer Models, Satellites Get a Makeover

Meteorologists have developed better forecast models, which have cut errors in track forecasts by more than half, Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said.

"The reason for this is two-fold," Kottlowski said. "One is better satellite coverage and improved techniques to use satellite data in analyzing and monitoring hurricanes. The second reason for improved track forecast is computer modeling."

"When I started over 37 years ago at AccuWeather, the computer models of choice were statistical and there was a lot of guesswork in where a storm was heading and how strong it would become," he said.

Today, new computer technology has taken the guesswork out of forecasting.

Every time a computer is upgraded, it's followed by an increased resolution of the model, Branch Chief James Franklin of the National Hurricane Center's Hurricane Specialist Unit said.

"The models have higher resolution and improved physics. We have not reached the limit of computers and it will continue to make the models better," he said.

Despite advancements in computer forecast models, there is still much to learn.

A better understanding is still needed of why ensemble forecast models such as the GFS (Global Forecast System) and the ECWMF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) models have storm tracks that go outside the consensus storm track, Franklin said.

Ensemble forecasts have the same tropical cyclone but with different parameters to determine its future track and intensity.

"It would help us make some intelligent judgments as to why they're going off to one direction or another," he said.

The devastation left by Hurricane Andrew is clear in this Sept. 4, 1992, aerial file photo over Florida City, Florida. The storm damage to Florida City, Homestead and other small cities south of Miami was estimated at $30 billion, leaving some 180,000 people homeless. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

2. Relocation Comes to the Forefront Post-Hurricane Andrew

Nearly demolishing South Florida and portions of Louisiana, Hurricane Andrew struck the region in August 1992, going down in the history books as the key turning point for hurricane forecasting.

The historic storm set forecasting back by about a decade, according to Franklin. Before Andrew, a technique called "vortex bogusing" was used in the computer models. This method linked a tropical storm vortex with bogus observations within the models.

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The technique was thought to have worked because the GFS forecasts for Andrew were "surprisingly good," Franklin said.

However, it was decided in the early 2000s that vortex bogusing was not as helpful as first thought.

"We had to unlearn something we thought we learned at the time (of Andrew)," Franklin said.

Years later, vortex bogusing was replaced by a "relocation" technique, which picks up a representation of the tropical cyclone and puts it in the right place on the models.

Aside from forecasting changes, emergency management protocols and techniques were completely revamped following the aftermath from Andrew.

"Since Andrew hit a very heavily populated area and was one of the first to do so in modern times, it was a wake-up call to all people living in and near and having interests in and near coastal areas," Kottlowski said.

"Instead of having uneducated and uninformed people evacuating the general public, government officials were finally convinced that these decision-making people had to be trained and given tools and resources to better handle the monumental task of getting people out of harm's way. This is still an ongoing process," he said.

A Hurricane Hunter aircraft is in flight. The U.S. government purchased more aircraft to investigate hurricanes in response to various major hurricanes, including Hurricane Camille in 1969. (Photo/NOAA).

3. Funds Allocated for Research Aircraft

Anytime a big storm hits a very populated area or creates phenomenal damage, more money is made available to conduct needed research to improve hurricane forecasting.

"The government and research centers react to these calamities because the public demands it," Kottlowski said.

"For example, after Category 5 Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi coast in 1969, the government was able to secure funding to buy two sophisticated research aircraft to fly into hurricanes. The Hurricane Research Division, NASA and NOAA still use those planes today for research into tropical and non-tropical storms," he said.

After hurricanes Hugo, Andrew and Floyd, research into those hurricanes helped convince the government to fund a higher-flying research aircraft to sample the upper-level structure of the atmosphere around a hurricane.

"After the wild year of 2005, which featured Category 5 hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, research of those storms convinced the government to fund a 10-year project aimed at improving not only track forecasts but also intensity forecasts," Kottlowski said.

There has also been discussion about how the United States weather industry has not kept up with improvements in computer technology and computer power, Kottlowski said.

"The U.S. is considered the leading nation in hurricane research, yet we have less fast computer resources than most of the more industrialized nations," he said.

A sample map from the National Hurricane Center shows storm surge potential for the Charleston, South Carolina, area from a hypothetical hurricane. (Photo/National Hurricane Center).

4. New Storm Surge, Wind Maps Aid With Decision-Making

Social studies after Hurricane Sandy suggest that people need to be more convinced of the importance of having a hurricane plan and being totally prepared to meet the challenges of hurricane evacuation and mitigating hurricane damage.

To help battle this challenge, the National Hurricane Center will be issuing storm surge forecast maps as an experimental product for at least the next two hurricane seasons.

Storm surge, or the rise in water levels ahead of a land-falling hurricane, is the greatest threat from a hurricane, Kottlowski said.

"The actual science of determining where a storm is going and what the impacts are going to be are better now than what they have been in the past," he said.

"But being able to communicate the threat to the general public is still a challenge. I think the decision-makers and those tasked to deal with evacuations are much better informed today than ever in past history. It's the public we need to convince."

The storm-surge map will provide emergency management officials and the public with a better idea of where and how they could be affected by the surge brought by a hurricane.

The Hurricane Center also has a wind speed probability graphic as one of its products.

"I think it's been difficult to get people to think probabilistically in terms of understanding risk," Franklin said. "Some forecasts are very certain. Some are uncertain."

"If people can see that ‘I have a 15 percent chance of hurricane-force winds at my house,' they may believe that's a high enough risk to protect their house," he said.


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