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Hurricane experts drop December forecasts, citing inaccuracy

Every year around Christmas, two of the country's top hurricane experts offer Floridians a gift nobody seems to want: next year's hurricane season predictions.

Coming at the end of a six-month hurricane season, the numbers long have been criticized for stoking hurricane anxiety and having little practical value.

Now, after 20 years, forecasters Bill Gray and Phil Klotzbach have decided to drop the December forecast, acknowledging what Floridians have suspected for a long time: The early forecast isn't very accurate.

The forecasters at Colorado State University will continue making predictions in April, June and August, which they say have improved in recent years.

The main difficulty with the December forecast is the unpredictability of El Niño. The massive shift of warm surface water to the east Pacific Ocean can dramatically reduce the likelihood of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

Starting this year, the forecasters will release a qualitative report in December on the upcoming season, talking more about general trends in the factors that cause hurricanes, such as the El Niño and surface water temperatures in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

On the title page of this year's report, the researchers explain the change through a quip from billionaire Warren Buffett:

"It is better to be qualitatively right than quantitatively wrong," it reads.

Many meteorologists applauded the change.

"It's about time," said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist of Weather Underground. "I think it's a great idea. They've been doing it for 20 years and they've had no skill, so why continue?"

Bay News 9 chief metrologist Mike Clay agreed.

"That's the proper scientific method," he said. "They gave it 20 years."

Although the early predictions weren't very accurate, Clay said they helped researchers learn about climate patterns and that predicting an upcoming hurricane season in December is extremely difficult.

While some seasonal projections have badly missed the mark, Gray and Klotzbach came pretty close this year.

They predicted 17 named storms, nine hurricanes and five major hurricanes packing winds of 111 mph or more. The season saw 19 named storms and seven hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.

Meteorologists and emergency managers say the absence of the December forecast will have little impact outside the scientific community and won't affect storm preparations.

The message stays the same.

It doesn't matter how active the forecast is supposed to be, all it takes is one storm to devastate a community.

Hurricane experts drop December forecasts, citing inaccuracy 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 10:27pm]
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