The National Weather Service is now four years into a ten year study to improve hurricane forecasts. There have been promising results so far and no real surprises. But, there is much left to learn. WGN-TV Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling traveled to Miami to talk to researchers and forecasters.
It’s called the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project. Researchers have become very good at predicting the path of a hurricane. So good, errors are half what they were 20 years ago. But, what they don’t fully understand is why one hurricane blows up into a Katrina, and others fizzle. “We have some hurricane nuts here!” And Chris Landsea, who is the Science and Operations Officer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami is admittedly one of those nuts. Here, they analyze a hurricane’s location, strength, and size. They use that information to issue hurricane forecasts for the next five days. Landsea was born and raised in Miami and has personally experienced the destructive powers of the great storms on earth.
“After Hurricane Andrew that destroyed my parents’ house, and then Hurricane Wilma that caused some damage at my house, I think I’ve had enough hurricanes hitting me. Hurricanes are immensely powerful. The amount of energy that a hurricane is releasing all the time is roughly equal to the whole earth’s electrical production. That’s one hurricane.” When hurricanes threaten our coastlines, Americans hang on every word from the National Hurricane Center. “Our number one mission is to save lives and property,” says Bill Read, who just retired as Director of the National Hurricane Center. Read says hurricanes are rare events, only six to ten a year is the long term average.
“Picture the Gulf of Mexico with no satellite, no aircraft, no radar, and you didn’t even have in 1900 a ship to shore radio yet. A ship got hit you find out about it if it came back to port.” With satellites, we now see what’s happening in real time over our oceans. And, faster computers calculate simulations of how a storm may evolve. But the trick is giving computers the data they need to make accurate predictions. James Franklin is a hurricane specialist. “You have to get very detailed, high resolution measurements of what’s going on right in and around the eye wall, the eye, the surrounding area around the core. By and large we don’t have those measurements.
So, it’s no wonder the computer models that aren’t being fed the information they need, have problems.” Enter the hurricane hunters; military personnel who fly scientists into hurricanes. Shirley Murillo is the field program director for NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division. “There is nothing like having a flying laboratory which is what the aircraft are… collecting data inside the storm. We’re dropping instruments from the belly of the aircraft collecting data.” By flying crisscross patterns and peppering the storm with instrument packages tied to parachutes, they capture all quadrants of a storm. And drones are now being used to linger in storms that would be too risky for humans. Dr. Frank Marks heads the Hurricane Research Division.
“I was learning a lot about hurricanes from these data sets, but I wasn't seeing it being used in the models. So we had to come up with a scheme and find researchers interested in taking that data and improving the initial analysis for the model to use. And that's been a real revolution for us.” They’re also looking at very complex microphysics, what’s happening in the ocean, and how the air and seat interact. “This is the Saharan dust, “ says Shirley Murillo. “This particular dust kind of hangs around in the mid levels of the atmosphere, so, it sort of impedes the growth of hurricanes.” Getting answers to storm intensification can’t come a moment too soon. 50% of the people in this country live within 50 miles of the coastline and you can see why, it is beautiful! Here in Miami Beach, people work play and live as close to the water as possible. So, as the coastal populations grow, Dr. Marks says accurate forecasts that give adequate evacuation lead time become ever more critical. “If you live in a hurricane prone area, it just takes one. You be prepared! And that message has got to come out.”
Dr. Marks says our high tech world makes us far more vulnerable to weather related disruptions. And when we asked about global warming, our experts tell us if the climate models are right and there is substantial global warming in the next few decades, there would be more wind shear affecting the tropics which would actually mean fewer hurricanes. But the ones we do get may be stronger. To learn more about improvements in hurricane forecasting, click these links.