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Hurricane forecasters just unveiled their newest prediction model. Just what can it do?

Previous runs of the model have shown it is at least 10% better at improving forecast tracks.
 
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the implementation of its newest hurricane model, which has been shown to improve forecasting by 10 to 15% when compared with other top hurricane models. Hurricane Ian whips up the water along the Gandy Bridge on Sept. 29, 2022. The hurricane made landfall in Southwest Florida.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the implementation of its newest hurricane model, which has been shown to improve forecasting by 10 to 15% when compared with other top hurricane models. Hurricane Ian whips up the water along the Gandy Bridge on Sept. 29, 2022. The hurricane made landfall in Southwest Florida. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published July 13, 2023|Updated July 14, 2023

A new hurricane model is in play at the National Hurricane Center, and it’s kicking off a new generation of modeling meant to improve storm track and intensity predictions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the launch of the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System on Thursday. The model, which became operational in late June, has been shown to improve forecasting by 10 to 15%.

An experimental version of the model ran from 2019 until 2022 and performed better at track predictions compared to existing hurricane models, according to the administration.

The new system is a regional hurricane model that focuses on a hurricane, as opposed to a model like the Global Forecast System that simulates weather across the globe. The hurricane center has had regional models at its disposal for years, like the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecast System and the Hurricane in a Multiscale Ocean-coupled Nonhydrostatic Model.

The new model is a natural evolution in improving forecasting, said Robbie Berg, a senior hurricane specialist at the hurricane center.

“What the weather service and NOAA have been doing is obviously trying to make upgrades and develop new models to help us to forecast hurricanes,” Berg said.

The foundational element of the newest model is what is called a “moving nest,” which allows forecasters to zoom in on areas of a hurricane like its eyewall or rain bands, according to the administration.

It’s like using a magnifying glass on a storm, said Sundararaman Gopalakrishnan, the senior meteorologist and leader of the modeling team behind the new system. The moving nests allow the model to zoom in with a resolution of 1.2 miles on areas of the hurricane, which will help forecasters better predict wind speeds and rainfall amounts, the administration said.

For now, the new system will run alongside existing hurricane models this year, before it is expected to replace them as the premier model. In the coming years, the new model will continue to undergo improvements. In the future, the model will forecast multiple hurricanes at one time, the administration said.

“We have laid the foundation for what is going to be the next generation,” Gopalakrishnan said.

The administration created the new system as a requirement of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017. The act ordered the agency to enhance hurricane predictions through the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program, created in 2007 after devastating hurricanes like Charley and Katrina.

For years, researchers have been working to improve intensity predictions.

Rapid intensification, when a storm’s maximum sustained wind speeds increase by at least 35 mph in a day, is notoriously hard to predict. Forecasters hope the new system will help them better anticipate the phenomenon.

In 2022, Hurricane Ian’s intensity forecasts were worse than the average of the last five years, according to the hurricane center. Researchers said this was largely because Ian’s rapid strengthening made intensity forecasting more difficult.

A sign of the new model’s capabilities: It was the first to anticipate Ian would rapidly intensify for a second time as it moved off the coast of Cuba toward Florida, the administration said.

“It’s not going to be the savior, at least not initially, but it’s definitely going to be one of those tools we look at when we’re actually making the forecast,” Berg said.

Berg said forecasters will need time to acclimate to the model. No model is perfect, he said. All models have their inaccuracies and biases, and it will take time for forecasters to get comfortable with it.

Forecasters don’t use just one model when making a forecast. The hurricane center will often use what’s called a consensus approach, meaning forecasters will use several models and take their average.

Generally, the consensus approach beats any one particular model over a season, Berg said.

“It’s going to be added into those family of models that help us produce a consensus, and we think, from some of the statistics we’ve seen, that it’s going to improve that consensus immensely,” Berg said. “I think that’s the thing we’re most excited about.”

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