This storm season, National Hurricane Center scientists are using sophisticated simulation models, new-age aircraft and better communications tools to achieve finely honed forecasting.
New technology, particularly super computers, has improved hurricane forecasting and awareness of their impending danger at the center, which is part of the National Weather Service and serves as ground zero in developing new ways to keep an eye on the pulse of killer hurricanes that rip through the U.S. every year.
“The technology that’s used to observe and forecast hurricanes has evolved gradually, usually a result of a fairly lengthy evaluation,” said Dr. Richard Knabb, director of the center. “Hopefully, in next few years, there will be new modeling. We’re already seeing some promising results, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Developments include hunter planes from NOAA and the Air Force with new instrumentation on the belly of the aircraft to better read the atmosphere, measure surface winds and define the intensity of a hurricane.
NOAA recently acquired a G4 Gulf Stream aircraft that can fly above hurricanes to measure upper winds steering the storm and improve forecasting.
“We are making it a very high priority to enhance the products and services such as the storm surge – identifying how much of the ocean is moving inland during a landfall (see video above) – the one weather-related hazard that can kill the most people in one day,” Knabb added.
The center works closely with both FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, providing information to aid in their decision-making progress. It’s a good roadmap for every agency dealing with public safety. In addition, NHC provides training courses and conference calls year round to these agencies.
“NHC learns from them, and they learn from NHC,” Knabb said.
There have been many great improvements in tracking hurricanes but better technology will continue to make forecasts more accurate, according to Hugh Willoughby, retired director of NOAA’s Hurricane Research division.
Track predictions – which aim to determine where the hurricane going – have improved greatly, Willoughby said. However, intensity predictions – how strong it will be – remain mediocre.
“Technology is a great enabling factor for improved forecasts, but it does not guarantee them,” Willoughby said. “Through the late 1980s NOAA was relatively backward in terms of its base in digital technology, now it’s either close to the optimum, or perhaps it’s straying to the “gizmology” side of the optimum.
The center has provided the funds for a lot of good forecasting tools and has attracted money from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Office of Naval Research to help finance research, he said.
It’s now using social media in addition to the standbys of radio and television. And it’s communicating more efficiently with on-the-ground state and local emergency managers to get the word out. Watch warnings come 48 hours ahead of time, up from 24 hours.
“We will issue a hurricane watch 48 hours in advance when the winds start to give emergency managers more time to complete preparation,” Knabb said.
But there are challenges, especially better communications on the ground. Knabb said one goal is to convey a storm surge warning with graphics and the potential for flooding as the water moves inland from the shore.
“In the future, we would really like to connect the models in a robust way to oceans, rivers and the plains,” he said. “We’re exploring, as well, how different ways flooding can occur and interact with different bodies of water.”
And there is always room for more innovation and technology to emerge. With any kind of weather prediction, “we always think the glass is half full,” said Josh Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo. “No matter how much better forecasts have gotten, there’s always a long way to go.”
For example, the forecasting for this year’s Hurricane Isaac that caused severe damage along the northern Gulf coast was difficult because the storm’s path kept changing.
“We certainly were reminded in storms like Isaac that even though we are much better than we used to be, we still have a long way to go,” Wurman said.