Hurricane Prediction Now, and Then
This is now: SAIL contributing editor Ben Ellison, after a pilgrimage to the government's Tropical Prediction Center on the campus of Florida State University, some 12 miles west of downtown Miami, says: "Without doubt the most thorough and timely hurricane information is on the World Wide Web. The Web is also a terrific place to pursue background studies and collect resources for those times when you have no online access. Here are a few valuable starting points:"
The Tropical Prediction Center and its forecasting department, the National Hurricane Center, maintain an information-rich site at www.nhc.noaa.gov. Data on current storms is posted every 6 hours starting a 5 a.m. Don't miss this hard-to-find page detailing hurricane precautions for boaters: NOAA: Marine Safety.
NOAA uses artificial intelligence to improve navigational safety data:
Read about AI (Artificial Intelligence)
There are numerous non-government sites for dedicated hurricane watchers. One with fast access to all sorts of sophisticated and current Atlantic hurricane model data, satellite imagery, and more is at atwc.org.
Central Pacific typhoons are followed by the National Weather Service Honolulu office. Western Pacific and Indian Ocean typhoon forecasting is available from the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Center also in Hawaii. A gentleman named Tim Rulon maintains a superb site detailing the myriad ways, like fax and USCG radio, that most public marine weather products—including hurricane advisories—are disseminated: Marine Product Dissemination Information
And, finally, there's a well made software program for tracking active cyclones worldwide and studying the tracks of past hurricanes. It's called Eye of the Storm, and it's available for demo or purchase ($30) at www.starstonesoftware.com.
Stormy, stormy times
2004 launched with a prediction that we would see a heavy storm season, not unlike 2003. To refresh your memory:
Last year's Atlantic hurricane season officially ended on November 30, 2003, but somebody forgot to tell that to Odette, which showed up after the hurricane season and (together with the much weaker Peter that followed) drenched the Domenican Republic and Haiti and raised the number of named storms from the first official count of 14 to a new official count of 16. o,
That aside, NOAA's official end-of-hurricane-season release is worth a read.
With the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season having officially ended Nov. 30, 2003, NOAA hurricane specialists said the above-normal 2003 Atlantic hurricane season produced 14 tropical storms, of which 7 became hurricanes and 3 became major hurricanes (Fabian, Isabel and Kate). Six of the named systems affected the United States, bringing high wind, storm surge or rain.
"NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, Hurricane Research Division and National Hurricane Center identified the high likelihood of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season as early as May," said John Jones, deputy director of the NOAA National Weather Service. "We expected an above normal season based in part on the wind, air pressure and ocean temperature patterns that recur annually for decades at a time and favor active hurricane seasons. These patterns make up the active phase of the Atlantic's multi-decadal signal."
Gerry Bell, head of NOAA's long-range hurricane forecast team, said, "These conditions were in place by early August, setting the stage for a very busy season."
Not content to wait so long to make a prediction for 2004, the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University studied the same long-range date and concluded that we'll see 13 named storms, with 7 developing into hurricanes and 3 becoming intense hurricanes.
According to the Tropical Meteorology Project, short-range prediction is as difficult as ever, but year-to-year forecasting is increasingly possible as researchers sort out improved packages of predictors. Nothing's easy in this, as the research team notes: due to "the nature of the seasonal or climate forecast problem where one is dealing with a complicated atmospheric-oceanic system that is highly non-linear."
Another way to say (and see) that is to note that the researchers define a "rather high" degree of year-to-year forecast potential as something in the range of 50-70 percent.
The Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory expects "enhanced intense Atlantic basin hurricane activity" for the next couple of decades. The prediction is based upon a combination of geographic and historical evidence suggesting that there are cycles in heat circulation in the Atlantic of 25-50 years, and we're headed into a hurricane-happy period.
Read more at:
National Hurricane Center
That was then: Eric Larson's 1999 book, Isaac's Storm, is an account of the absurd delusions that gripped certain quarters of the U.S. Weather Bureau in that era of hubris, the turn of the 20th century. The hurricanes that had once surprised and confounded Columbus were now familiar—and understood, so it was believed. The "Isaac" of this tale is Isaac Monroe Cline, a young, confident family man assigned to run the Weather Bureau office in Galveston, Texas, a bustling city predicted to become the New York of the West. Isaac did not think it ominous that the whole of the city was so low, so flat, "so close to sea level as to produce the illusion that ships in the Gulf were sailing in the streets." Isaac believed that the great expanse of shallow Gulf water east of Galveston made it invulnerable to hurricanes. He would believe that right up to September 8, 1900, a day that dawned with a mystical beauty and rising wind that drew people to the waterfront to enjoy a spectacle. Until the spectacle rolled over the city, drowned it, and tore it apart.
Mr. Larson tracks the storm from its beginnings: "Over the Niger, the colliding winds veered and arced. Thunderstorms of great violence purpled the sky. A huge parcel of air began circling slowly, far too high for anyone on the ground to notice. The powerful Saharan wind swept it west toward the Atlantic as a wave of turbulence, thunderstorms and driving rain." He follows the storm across the sea, through the shipping lanes, to its devastating landfall: "The water was rising rapidly to the second floor, so Papa helped us climb from the outside through dormer windows to the attic bedroom . . . The house eased from its foundations, slid through a shallow westward arc, then began to float."
Larson does not spare the irony that the information was available for Galveston to know the storm was coming. An account of people in the worst disaster in U.S. history. Recommended reading—K.L.
By Eric Larson
Crown Publishers, New York. $25.