Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hurricane Forecasting is a can of worms

Or day 2 of the National Hurricane conference in Orlando.

"Hurricane forecasting is a can of worms", that's how famed hurricane forecaster Dr William Gray opened his presentation.  He made this statement in front of a packed house. Every forecaster from the US and the Caribbean crammed into the small conference room to hear him, and his team, explain last years seasonal forecast debacle.

His team from Colorado State, which also includes Dr Phil Klotzbach, was very straight forward and humble explaining what happened.

Dr Gray said the brunt of the criticism came from fellow weather brethren, adding "... how brilliant meteorologists are after the fact".

Indeed he's right. Heaven knows I've blown my fair share of forecasts only 24 hours out...while he's dealing with a 6 month-long outlook.

But we're not here to throw stones, we're here to really learn about what happened.

 He explained that one learns more from failures,  adding  "because you have to go back and find out what happened". Good point.

So why did we have such a quiet 2013?

Blame it on the Atlantic thermohaline. An ocean current system to be precise, that helps to transport heat as well as cool waters across many areas of the Atlantic basin.

He said this conveyor belt of water suffered its biggest collapse since 1950. It happened rather quickly from winter to spring.

The collapse created cold air pockets and strong wind shear in the atmosphere making it more difficult for hurricanes to form. It also put in place a huge dome of high pressure that acted as a wall that storms could not penetrate.

Now what?

Dr. Gray is already predicting a quieter season, but why? The CSU team bases this on two key factors.

Once again he is pointing to the water conveyor belt in the Atlantic. He is suggesting it will have an impact, but a limited one.

This year he says Atlantic waters should run warmer which means more evaporation, which in turn makes the water more saline in the Northern Atlantic.  This heavier saltier water sinks causing further mixing. This greater mixing in the past has lead to more storms.

But wait!:

Dr. Phil Klotzbach chimes in with the other big signal for hurricane activity, that being El Niño.
He says west winds in the Pacific Ocean are pushing warmer water to the eastern Pacific signaling the start of El Niño.  Since February, ocean temps have been warming leading to what they suspect will be a moderate to strong El Niño event.  The last strong El Niño was in '97.

While this may lead to a less active season, according to Klotzbach, it has little impact on the Gulf States. They tend to see the average number of systems.  The team feels confident in their El Niño forecast giving it a 90% of development by late summer, while NOAA's projections are more subdued at 60%.

So the bottom line, even though the thermohaline hints at more activity, the overriding warming Pacific should keep everything quieter.

Climate Change:

Dr. Gray always says this is the "Big Gorilla" in the room. He says most media reports suggest the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the stronger and more active seasons will become.

He debunks all that suggesting there is no data that says CO2 from Global Warming equals more activity, as a matter of fact, he illustrates the opposite that more CO2 equals less activity.

I believe his time frame of only the last 100 years is too short. Who knows what will happen in the decades ahead if CO2 continues unchecked.

Director of National Hurricane Center
I also had the privilege today to interview one on one Dr. Richard Knabb, director of NHC. We talked about last season, this season, new developments for advisories this year, and climate change.

He truly is one the brightest and most level headed expert I know. We are in good hands at NHC.  I will have his full interview on our hurricane special to air before the start of the season.

By the way, speaking of hurricane directors, back in 1982 then director Neil Frank said, "there's no way to tell how active the Atlantic hurricane season is going to be." 

I believe no matter how advanced our forecasts get, there is some truth to that statement. I always prepare as if we will get hit, and never look back at numbers. I hope you will too.

Day 3 tomorrow.


  1. If you're a weather lover like me (or geek as my wife would say) you'll love day 2 of the NHC conference.

  2. I love that you have a blog this really cool Phil!

  3. Thank you very much. It truly gives me a way of getting out motor info that is not allowed on TV due to time constraints. Enjoy!

  4. Meant to say "More" info not motor. Darn auto-correct.

  5. Thanks for the information. Informing the public on this is crucial and very much needed. Thank you for your time and effort.