Hints For Hurricane Watchers

by Bob Schwartz

In 2005 we became a nation of hurricane watchers. We couldn’t help it: there were so many Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms that season that the National Hurricane Center ran out of names:

Tropical Storm ARLENE
Tropical Storm BRET
Hurricane CINDY
Hurricane DENNIS
Hurricane EMILY
Tropical Storm FRANKLIN
Tropical Storm GERT
Tropical Storm HARVEY
Hurricane IRENE
Tropical Depression TEN
Tropical Storm JOSE
Hurricane KATRINA
Tropical Storm LEE
Hurricane MARIA
Hurricane NATE
Hurricane OPHELIA
Hurricane PHILIPPE
Hurricane RITA
Tropical Depression NINETEEN
Hurricane STAN
Tropical Storm TAMMY
Subtropical Depression TWENTY-TWO
Hurricane VINCE
Hurricane WILMA
Tropical Storm ALPHA
Hurricane BETA
Tropical Storm GAMMA
Tropical Storm DELTA
Hurricane EPSILON
Tropical Storm ZETA

It turned out to be a season of devastation, not the least of which was the still-resonating aftermath of Katrina. One of the upshots was political: the memorable and controversial response of President George W. Bush to Katrina (“heck of a job, Brownie”) still sticks to him as a mark on his Presidency.

Hurricanes and politics are back again, this time as Isaac heads toward a possible disruption of the Republican Convention in Tampa.

For those who experienced Hurricanes 2005 firsthand, checking the 5:00am advisory on the National Hurricane Center website became a ritual—as did checking the 11:00am, 2:00pm, 5:00pm, 8:00pm, 11:00pm and 2:00am advisories. Besides the text descriptions from “Forecaster Avila” and “Forecaster Franklin” there were the maps.

The maps provided a wealth of graphical information, including the famous “Uncertainty Cone.” This is a prediction, three and five days out, of the broad possible route of the storm, including possible timeline and strength. The cone is meant to catch the attention of all areas that might be subject to the storm’s dynamic path.

That cone is in turn based on very sophistical computer modeling of how storms behave. There are at least eight different guidance models used by forecasters, all them with a different record of successful prediction. Sometimes the models are close to each other, especially as the late life of a storm. But often the models are widely divergent. On a map, these tracks are represented by colored lines; they look like, and are sometimes called, spaghetti tracks.

Maps of uncertainty cones and advisories are still available for viewing on the NHC site, along with educational briefings and a fascinating and exhaustive history of storm seasons past. But something has gone away, as NHC explains:

The National Hurricane Center does not generate a graphic of the guidance models it uses to produce its forecasts. Such graphics have the potential to confuse users and to undermine the effectiveness of NHC official tropical cyclone forecasts and warnings.

NHC is right. If you don’t recognize that one track is more reliable than another, especially in light of current conditions, you could easily jump to an ill-informed conclusion. However, those who don’t have a degree in meteorology but who do have an unofficial certificate in hurricane tracking (those hours in front of the computer in the middle of the night have to be good for something) still love to watch those colored lines squiggle around the map.

If you are watching Isaac, visit the National Hurricane Center website. And then, if you dare to and can watch responsibly, check out the models for yourself. One of the best places to find them is here—which happens to be, by chance or fate, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, just about an hour from Janesville.