How Meteorologists Predict the Next Big Hurricane
By Mark Bourassa and Vasu Misra
Hurricane Florence is heading toward the U.S. coast, right at the height of hurricane season.
Hurricanes can cause immense damage due to the winds, waves and rain, not to mention the chaos as the general population prepares for severe weather.
The latter is getting more relevant, as the monetary damage from disasters is trending up. The growing coastal population and infrastructure, as well as rising sea level, likely contribute to this increase in costs of damage.
This makes it all the more imperative to get early and accurate forecasts out to the public, something researchers like us are actively contributing to.
Hurricane forecasts have traditionally focused on predicting a storm's track and intensity. The track and size of the storm determine which areas may be hit. To do so, forecasters use models—essentially software programs, often run on large computers.
Unfortunately, no single forecast model is consistently better than other models at making these predictions. Sometimes these forecasts show dramatically different paths, diverging by hundreds of miles. Other times, the models are in close agreement. In some cases, even when models are in close agreement, the small differences in track have very large differences in storm surge, winds and other factors that impact damage and evacuations.
What's more, several empirical factors in the forecast models are either determined under laboratory conditions or in isolated field experiments. That means that they may not necessarily fully represent the current weather event.
So, forecasters use a collection of models to determine a likely range of tracks and intensities. Such models include the NOAA's Global Forecast System and European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts global models.
The FSU Superensemble was developed by a group at our university, led by meteorologist T.N. Krishnamurti, in the early 2000s. The Superensemble combines output from a collection of models, giving more weight to the models that showed better predicted past weather events, such Atlantic tropical cyclone events.
A forecaster's collection of models can be made larger by tweaking the models and slightly changing the starting conditions. These perturbations attempt to account for uncertainty. Meteorologists cannot know the exact state of the atmosphere and the ocean at the time of the start of the model. For example, tropical cyclones are not observed well enough to have sufficient detail about winds and rain. For another example, the sea surface temperature is cooled by the passage of a storm, and if the area remains cloud-covered these cooler waters are much less likely to be observed by satellite.
Over the past decade, track forecasts have steadily improved. A plethora of observations—from satellites, buoys and aircraft flown into the developing storm—allow scientists to better understand the environment around a storm, and in turn improve their models. Some models have improved by as much as 40 percent for some storms.
A buoy collecting weather data. U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
However, forecasts of intensity have improved little over the last several decades.
That's partly because of the metric chosen to describe the intensity of a tropical cyclone. Intensity is often described in terms of peak wind speed at a height of 10 meters above the surface. To measure it, operational forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami look at the maximum, one-minute average wind speed observed at any given point in the tropical cyclone.
However, it's extremely difficult for a model to estimate the maximum wind speed of a tropical cyclone at any given future time. Models are inexact in their descriptions of the entire state of the atmosphere and ocean at the start time of the model. Small-scale features of tropical cyclones—like sharp gradients in rainfall, surface winds and wave heights within and outside of the tropical cyclones—are not as reliably captured in the forecast models.
Both atmospheric and ocean characteristics can influence storm intensity. Scientists now think that better information about the ocean could offer the the greatest gains in forecast accuracy. Of specific interest is the energy stored in the upper ocean and how this varies with ocean features such as eddies. Current observations are not sufficiently effective at placing ocean eddies in the correct location, nor are they effective in capturing the size of these eddies. For conditions where the atmosphere doesn't severely limit hurricane growth, this oceanic information should be very valuable.
Meanwhile, forecasters are pursuing alternative and complementary metrics, like the size of the tropical cyclones.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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