A new spin on hurricane forecasting

Times Staff Writer

As coastal residents from the Caribbean to Canada brace for as many as 16 named storms, including two to five major hurricanes, predicted for the 2008 Atlantic season, the science of hurricane tracking is expected to improve this year. The human factor, however, has some ground to make up.

Unmanned aircraft will provide new insight into how storms form and gain force by flying into the eye of a storm and gathering data on winds, temperatures, humidity and pressure. A global network of trackers and analysts will receive data from the drones on the energy exchange that occurs on the sea surface and determines a storm’s intensity.

Meteorologists have “over-forecast” the last two tropical storm seasons, and emergency response planners concede that the message that “it only takes one” is more difficult to get across when citizens steeled themselves in 2006 and 2007, only to be left with closets full of canned food, batteries and bottled water.

This hurricane season jumped the gun of today’s official start date, with Tropical Storm Arthur forming early Saturday off the coasts of Honduras and Belize.


And it comes after a rough period for the National Hurricane Center, where a fourth director in less than 18 months is trying to unify a staff described as divided and squabbling in a report commissioned by its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bill Read has been director since January. “One of my tasks is to take the necessary actions to improve conditions internally,” he said of the criticism detailed in a report to NOAA on staff morale since a mutiny last year against then-Director Bill Proenza.

The report noted that all hurricane center personnel surveyed asserted that they put their differences aside and worked together effectively during the storm season. But it also noted “serious friction” between the 10 forecasters and the teams responsible for analysis and technical support.

Forecasters were described by co-workers as “prima donnas,” and evidence suggested that female colleagues were often ignored by the hierarchy and that introverted scientists were silenced by their more aggressive peers.


The internal tempest flared after Proenza took over from the popular Max Mayfield in January 2007, then waged battles with superiors in Washington over resources that some scientists felt cast doubt on the reliability of their work.

“I don’t look at any of that as insurmountable,” Read said of the reported tensions. “I think it exposes some of the natural differences of opinion you’ll find at any organization.”

At the fortress-like hurricane center at the edge of the Florida International University campus, about 20 miles inland, the scientists who will track the storms have joined forces with local leaders and emergency response planners to urge citizens to take the task of preparation seriously, no matter the number of storms expected.

“The last two seasonal forecasts were not as good as we were hoping,” senior hurricane specialist Jack Beven said of the unrealized predictions of highly active seasons. He conceded that over-forecasting runs the risk of making people complacent but warned that the frequency of storms isn’t connected to where they strike.

“If 20 storms occur and they all miss you, you might feel like ‘What was all the fuss about?’ ” he said. “But if you only have three storms in a season and one is a Category 5 that hits you, you’ve got a problem. You need to prepare the same every year, regardless of what the seasonal forecast is.”

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who convened 2,000 state and local first responders and emergency managers in mid-May for the annual hurricane preparedness effort, joked that his state was spared any major hurricanes last year because he placed a prayer in Jerusalem’s Western Wall during a visit a year earlier. “Never underestimate the power of prayer, but never underestimate the need to be prepared,” Crist said.

Broward County Mayor Lois Wexler warned: “The past two years we’ve been lucky, but we have no reason to believe the same luck will prevail. When you live in a region like ours, it’s not a matter of if we will have another hurricane; it’s a matter of when we will have another hurricane.”

Hurricane specialist Eric Blake worked with NOAA colleagues from the Climate Prediction Center in Washington to draft the 2008 forecast, which has added a probability index. The six-month season has a 65% probability of being “above normal,” with 12 to 16 named storms, including six to nine hurricanes and two to five major hurricanes with winds in excess of 111 mph, the forecast states.


William M. Gray, a hurricane expert from Colorado State University, in April predicted a season “well above normal,” with 15 named storms, eight of them becoming hurricanes when their winds grow to 74 mph or more and four developing into major-hurricane intensity.

Blake, a former student of Gray, acknowledged that 2006 and 2007 fell short of forecasts but added that not all of the region escaped as unscathed as the United States. In the Caribbean and Mexico, Hurricanes Dean, Felix and Noel took 322 lives.

“If any of those had made landfall in the U.S., we would have a very different perspective,” Blake said.

Those three names have been retired from the World Meteorological Organization’s rotating list of Atlantic storm names, which this year began with Arthur and will continue with Bertha, Cristobal and Dolly.

A relatively new focus this season will be the fleet of drones to be deployed from a base in Barbados. At 28 pounds, they have a wingspan of only 9 feet and a 2,000-mile flight range on less than a gallon of gas. The hardy drones will be able to come within 300 feet of the sea surface.

“One way to see changes in intensity is to see where the ocean meets the air, where energy is drawn out of the oceans,” said Joe Cione, a research meteorologist with NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory here.

With the drones augmenting manned flights, scientists should be able to get “a full-length movie instead of just snapshots,” he said.

NOAA’s P3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft carry more sophisticated instruments but have to fly at about 10,000 feet once a storm has developed, said Cione.


The drones, which can be launched by catapult or from the roof of an SUV, have minimal instrumentation onboard and are initially controlled by someone on the ground using line-of-sight radio and a joystick. Once a drone is on its flight path, command and control are transferred by satellite signal to a laptop anywhere in the world.

The retrievable drones, which cost $50,000 to $80,000, have flown a few test missions over the last three years but are due to be deployed more comprehensively this season because the experts who research storm intensity want continuous monitoring of developing storms.

“If we can accurately assess whether it’s going to be a Category 2 or Category 4 [hurricane] by the time it makes landfall, that could guide decisions on whether a certain area needs to evacuate,” Cione said. “We can save lives and minimize the impact on property damage. That’s the overriding goal of what we’re doing.”