Forecasting made advances, still not perfect

There are two important things to remember about hurricane forecasting in the year 2010. First, the science of meteorology has made some incredible advances in forecasting the track of tropical storms and hurricanes over the last two decades. Research dollars have been well spent, the top scientists tackled a tough problem and have made forecasting the path of a storm more accurate. Sure, some storms will still surprise us, no computer is going to forecast the weird paths and loops hurricanes have taken in the past. But, the hurricane usually ends up inside the forecast cone. Although the average errors might seem large, they are much better than 5, 10 and 20 years ago.

The average error for the center of the hurricane or tropical storm based on NHC forecasts from 2004-2008:

12 hours: 32 n. miles

24 hours: 55 n. miles

36 hours: 89 n. miles

48 hours: 99 n. miles

72 hours: 147 n. miles

96 hours: 200 n. miles

120 hours: 263 n. miles

This means, at the end of the famous forecast cone, the average error is more than 250 miles. That’s why we tell you not to focus too much on the center of the cone.

Now the bad news. At the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando last month, Hurricane Center Director Bill Read told us of the lack of skill in predicting intensity. Actually, NHC basically has no skill at all when you look at the statistics. We define “skill” as having a higher ability to be correct, than if you’d just flip a coin or guess. Although the forecast for one individual storm might be accurate, over the long term with all hurricanes and tropical storms, meteorology has not advanced in intensity forecasting. A tough pill to swallow, considering the research that has been done in this area with the hope that this forecast feature could be improved just like the track forecast.

My concern is people who live in vulnerable areas are making life and death decisions based on these 48-120 hour forecasts. I remember the man from Galveston, Texas being interviewed on TV just before Hurricane Ike came ashore in 2008. Ike’s incredible storm surge removed all structures from the barrier islands that weren’t protected by a sea wall. This gentleman said he was staying because Ike was “only a category 2, but if it became a 3 he would leave.” At that time, Ike was just one mph below a category 3. He wasted valuable evacuation time and risked his life because of 1 mph?

This will be my 22nd year doing the weather along the Gulf Coast and my 13th hurricane season in Tampa Bay. No two seasons are the same and no two hurricanes are the same. We try hard not to “hype” a storm by just giving you the weather information you need every hour with our Tropical Update. We’ll be here again this season, watching the tropics at 49 after the hour and more often if a tropical system develops. Our team of meteorologists with years of experience in Tampa Bay weather will be here bringing you our insight every hour from June through November.