Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Hurricane forecasters still struggle with intensity

The forecast for Superstorm Sandy was spot on. Two days before the storm struck the East Coast, meteorologists issued a strikingly accurate forecast of both the storm's track and strength. It gave emergency planners time to prepare. Residents time to get to safety.

It was a victory for meteorologists.

That's the storm you probably remember. But that's only part of the tale.

About five days before it made landfall in New Jersey, Sandy was barreling toward Cuba. Just a day out, forecasters predicted it would be a Category 1 hurricane with winds of about 80 mph.


By the time it hit, Sandy was a Category 3 with winds of 115 mph.

"That's a pretty big difference as far as impacts go," said Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center.

They missed the hurricane's rapid strengthening.

The lesson is an old one: Forecasting hurricane intensity is an elusive challenge.

"It's the real rapid changes in strength up and down that we often have the most difficulty in forecasting," Brown said.

Though tremendous advances have been made in predicting hurricane tracks, little progress has been made in determining a storm's strength.

William M. Gray, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University, agreed there are substantial issues with forecasting intensity.

"That's a real bottleneck," he said. "We've known we've had the problem for years. These storms are so complex."

Storm structures vary tremendously and numerous factors contribute to intensity.

"People who study these storms say each storm has its own personality,'' Gray said. "There's not one exactly like the other."

Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay said meteorologists have struggled with predicting rapidly intensifying hurricanes since Andrew struck 21 years ago.

Forecasting intensity has been the subject of much research over the past decade. One improvement: measuring wind speed.

Andrew, which was upgraded from a Category 4 to Category 5 on its 10th anniversary, was bumped up in part because of data captured from a dropsonde, a device dropped from hurricane reconnaissance aircraft into the eye wall, measuring a variety of factors every 15 feet on its way down.

The dropsonde gives meteorologists a better look at the true strength of hurricanes, proving they had been underestimating speed of surface winds.

Hurricane forecasters still struggle with intensity 05/17/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 1:13pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. After Irma topples tree, home sale may be gone with the wind

    Real Estate

    ST. PETERSBURG — To house hunters searching online, the home for sale in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres neighborhood couldn't have looked more appealing — fully renovated and shaded by the leafy canopy of a magnificent ficus benjamini tree.

    Hurricane Irma's winds recently blew over a large ficus tree, left, in the yard of a home at 3601Alabama Ave NE, right, in Shore Acres which is owned by Brett Schroder who is trying to sell the house.
[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  2. Bucs' Josh Robinson excited for return to Vikings


    For much of Josh Robinson's four seasons with the Vikings, there was excitement leading up to the arrival of the $1.1-billion U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened last season, just as Robinson signed with the …

    Josh Robinson (26) tackles Chicago punt returner Eddie Royal (19) during a game between the Bucs and Bears in 2016. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
  3. For starters: Rays at Orioles, meeting up with ex-mate Tim Beckham


    The Rays open their final roadtrip of the season tonight in Baltimore, and - continuing the theme of the week - willl cross paths with another familiar face, INF Tim Beckham.

    Tim Beckham made a smashing debut with the Orioles, hitting .394 with six homers and 19 RBIs in August.
  4. Unemployment claims double in Florida after Hurricane Irma


    The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped by 23,000 last week to 259,000 as the economic impact of Hurricane Harvey began to fade.

    Homes destroyed by Hurricane Irma on Big Pine Key last week. Hurricane Irma continued to have an impact on the job market in Florida, where unemployment claims more than doubled from the previous week.
[The New York Times file photo]
  5. Clearwater Marine Aquarium receives $500,000 gift

    Human Interest

    CLEARWATER — The R.O. Jacobson Foundation donated $500,000 on Tuesday to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's major expansion.

    The Clearwater Marine Aquarium received a $500,000 donation from the R.O. Jacobson Foundation toward its $66 million expansion.. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]