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Forecasting storm intensity has improved, but can still be shaky

Ernest Coronel of the SPCA of Los Angeles searches for pets in a neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas, in September 2008. It is important to realize that storm forecasts, while they have improved, are not always completely accurate.

Associated Press

Ernest Coronel of the SPCA of Los Angeles searches for pets in a neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Ike in Galveston, Texas, in September 2008. It is important to realize that storm forecasts, while they have improved, are not always completely accurate.

You should keep in mind two important things about hurricane forecasting this year.

First, forecasting the path of a hurricane has improved greatly over the past two decades.

Sure, some storms will surprise us. No computer is going to predict the weird paths and loops hurricanes can take. But hurricanes usually end up within the "forecast cone," which gets more accurate as a storm nears.

The average error from 2004-2008 ranged from 263 nautical miles 120 hours out to 32 miles 12 hours out. The average was about 250 nautical miles.

That's still a lot of uncertainty, and it's why we tell you not to focus on the skinny line at the center of the cone.

Now for the second important point: Forecasting the intensity of a storm is tough.

National Hurricane Center director Bill Read discussed the lack of skill in predicting intensity at this year's national hurricane conference.

Actually, the hurricane center has no skill at all if you define it as having a better chance of being right than you would from flipping a coin.

Although the forecast for one storm might be accurate, the reality is that meteorology has not advanced much in forecasting intensity. That's a tough pill to swallow, considering how much research has been done and how much better tracking forecasts have gotten.

My concern is that people living in vulnerable areas make life-and-death decisions based on these shaky forecasts.

I remember a man interviewed on TV in Galveston, Texas, 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 sea walls. This gentleman said he was staying because Ike was "only a Category 2" but would leave if it became a Category 3. At the time, Ike was just 1 mph below a Category 3.

He wasted valuable evacuation time and risked his life because of 1 mph?

This will be my 22nd year forecasting the weather along the gulf coast and my 13th hurricane season in Tampa Bay. No two seasons are the same. No two hurricanes are the same. We try hard not to "hype" a storm. Instead, we give you the weather information you need every hour during our Tropical Update.

We'll be here again this season, watching the tropics at 49 minutes past 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.





Forecasting storm intensity has improved, but can still be shaky 05/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 21, 2010 2:25pm]
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