Tags: Report: | Progress | Stalled | Hurricane | Intensity | Forecasting

Report: Progress Stalled in Hurricane Intensity Forecasting

Tuesday, 12 September 2006 12:00 AM

In the last 15 years, forecasters have gotten much better at predicting where a tropical storm will go, but the error rate for the vital prediction of storm intensity has changed little. According to the recently released minority report of the Hurricane Intensity Research Working Group (HIRWG), without some dramatic changes, there will be "little or no progress in hurricane intensity forecasts for well over a decade."

Among other things, the HIRWG wants the United States to establish a new organization - a National Hurricane Research Laboratory - and give priority to hiring and retaining professional staff.

Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC), who is retiring in January, has called hurricane intensity "the No. 1 need to the research community," adding that in his own opinion, forecasters are probably 10 to 15 years from being able to forecast a storm's intensity with the same precision as its track.

For its part, HIRWG disagrees with the current hurricane intensity research focus on high-resolution numerical modeling of hurricane dynamics – a subject too technical to explain in any detail.

"It [numerical modeling] represents a slow evolution of the status quo with respect to improved predictions, data assimilation, and observational methods; one which has produced little or no progress in hurricane intensity forecasts for well over a decade," the group wrote.

The group believes much more emphasis needs to be placed on fostering a diversity of ideas and approaches to hurricane forecasts - rather than converging on a single officially-approved numerical model.

It's all about getting an accurate picture of a hurricane's inner core, including its moisture level, air temperature, and winds at various altitudes.

In the recent case of Hurricane Ernesto, forecasts of that storm's intensity are theorized to have been thrown off by high-level winds from the East that stunted its growth.

As it was, Ernesto weakened considerably to a tropical storm before engaging the U.S. coast – good news of course, but errant forecasts of its strength may have added to a growing "the-sky-is-falling" problem that apparently affects the way Americans respond to weather disasters.

Mayfield's concern is that already too many Americans are not taking federal reports about storms seriously enough. He points to a recent survey by the National Hurricane Survival Initiative that indicated that a critical 13 percent of those polled from coastal areas said they would not evacuate – even if ordered to do so. Furthermore, a full 56 percent recorded that they did not even feel "vulnerable" to storms.

Regardless of approach, is there enough funding to ramp-up hurricane intensity research?

Dr. Jeff Masters, founder of The Weather Underground, a popular Web site for hurricane information, recently told The Daily News that in his opinion, the NHC has been understaffed for a number of years – since being tasked with the additional job of writing all the advisories for Eastern Pacific hurricanes.

However, Masters advised, NHC has recently added four new hurricane forecasters, thanks to a special requisition championed by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

"NHC now has 10 hurricane forecasters, and this will help greatly," Masters said. "NOAA [NHC's parent agency, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency] also got money for a new weather research airplane, which will help out our hurricane reconnaissance needs. An additional $1.4 million has been proposed this year to improve buoys in the Atlantic."

But, significantly, Masters says the only area where not much money was made available was for hurricane research and that more dollars were needed to fund development of better hurricane intensity forecasts.

"NOAA's Hurricane Research Division [a separate entity from Mayfield's NHC] does fantastic work on this, and could probably significantly improve our hurricane intensity forecasts if they were able to add a few new scientists to research this," he concluded.

When NewsMax asked NOAA spokesman Dave Miller about hurricane intensity research funding, he provided this statement by retired Navy Vice-Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and the NOAA administrator:

"We have been able to increase our budget each year in the last four years for research and operations. We have set up a national panel to look at improvements in hurricane intensification forecasting. There is significant work going on in NOAA about what we are doing and how we are doing it and the direction we ought to be going in.

"I don't think any agency head would say he is getting extraordinary amounts of money to do everything they need to do. But we are getting the resources we need. We have a number of people out there working very diligently on these projects, and we are going to continue to look for investments that pay off in hurricane forecasting."

Miller also provided some NOAA budget figures for fiscal year 2006, indicating that the total "Hurricane Budget" was $300 million:

Indeed, as administrator Lautenbacher indicated to NewsMax, the Hurricane Research Division's base budget has been creeping up – from $2.84 million in 2003, to $2.95 million in 2004, to $3.03 million in 2005, and to $3.20 in 2006.

Spokesman Miller pointed out that the figures above do not include emergency supplemental monies and other NOAA support received through funded proposals to Hurricane Research Division scientists through projects such as the Joint Hurricane Testbed and other federal agencies such as NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In testimony this past summer before the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, Lautenbacher reported that NOAA's hurricane forecasting capabilities have been significantly improved since the recent distribution of fiscal year 2006 emergency supplemental funding.

The funding was put toward improving hurricane intensity and storm surge modeling, and procuring an additional hurricane hunter aircraft, he said.

Lautenbacher added that the agency is requesting a $109 million increase for hurricane related programs for fiscal year 2007.

The apparent good news is that the 2006 supplemental funding has accelerated the development of NOAA's new hurricane model, which integrates the agency's latest atmospheric model with real-time ocean data.

Dr. Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service's National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), explained to the committee that the computer program, which is presently undergoing testing, should be fully operational by the 2007 hurricane season.

According to Uccellini, the model will improve forecasts of hurricane landfall by 20 percent and hurricane intensity by 30 percent. Improvements to the storm surge prediction model, known as SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes), will likely not be implemented until 2008.

In mid-August, John E. Jones, Jr., deputy director of the National Weather Service, was also complimentary regarding funding — reporting that the FY 2006 Hurricane Supplemental Funding approved by Congress was being utilized for forecast model improvements, storm surge, and inland hurricane forecasting improvements.

Jones also reported that the accuracy of NOAA's hurricane forecasts was closely tied to improvements in computer-based numerical weather prediction models.

"NOAA's Central Computer System upgrade in fiscal year 2007 will increase computational speed, memory, and storage capabilities. This allows more sophisticated numerical models to run and make use of available data, including data from NOAA's polar orbiting and geostationary satellites," he testified.

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In the last 15 years, forecasters have gotten much better at predicting where a tropical storm will go, but the error rate for the vital prediction of storm intensity has changed little. According to the recently released minority report of the Hurricane Intensity Research...
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Tuesday, 12 September 2006 12:00 AM
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