Meteorologists use technology to track storms with more accuracy


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Improved technology has helped meteorologists predict storms with more accuracy.

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Meteorologists are excited about both the present and future of tropical cyclone forecasting.

The rationale for that excitement can be seen clearly when looking at the success rate of the National Hurricane Center. It has been close  with the forecast and the actual tracks of some recent storms.

“I think over the last couple of hurricane seasons, thankfully with better technology, better modeling has put out pretty accurate forecasts for Maria, Florence, Michael,” said Dan Brown, a senior hurricane specialist and the warning coordination meteorologist with the NHC. “They’re not always going to be that perfect, and we do have to consider that uncertainty. But, it shows how far we’ve come with our track forecasting.’’

“The track forecasts have gotten better pretty much every year,” said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University, which produces renowned seasonal tropical cyclone forecasts, on which he is the lead author. “There’s actually been some discussion from (NHC tropical analysis and forecast branch chief) Chris Landsea and others at the (National) Hurricane Center that we might be reaching the limits of what we can do and say with a one- or two-day forecast.”

The hope is that the NHC will soon be able to issue six- and seven-day forecasts in their tropical cyclone forecast tracks, which are issued every six hours and at 11 a.m. and p.m. and 5 a.m. and p.m. when a tropical cyclone is active in the Atlantic basin. Currently, the forecast tracks only go out five days.

“We at the (National) Hurricane Center have been making six- and seven-day forecasts in house now for a few hurricane seasons. I think it’s something we’re going to see in the future,” Brown said. “We do see that the model guidance has continued to improve. We’ve gone back and looked at the average track errors on those six- and seven-day forecasts that we’ve made. And, they’re about as good as the four- and five-day forecasts were about 15 years ago when we introduced those. So, the skill is getting better.

Perhaps the area in which forecasters hope to most improve forecasting is with respect to a storm’s intensity. That room for improvement also can be seen in recent forecasts.

“You look at Michael, look at Florence. The track is really close,” Graham said. “We still struggle with the intensity and there’s more science and there’s more research that we need to do to get that into the intensity forecasts. We measure the ocean temperature that’s usually at the surface. Well, what’s happening 100 feet below, 200 feet below? We need to get more of those parameters into the models. The upper atmosphere, all of that needs to get in there to help us with the intensity forecast.”

Seasonal forecasting in which meteorologists try to predict how many storms will form and to what intensity they’ll reach each year also will continue to have its share of difficulties, according to Klotzbach.

“Every seasonal forecast, especially in April, is really hard and even in June is tricky,” Klotzbach said. “Now, we have climate models that will predict kind of what the large-scale conditions are going to look like during the season. Those  models do have reasonable levels of skill, which give us some clue as to how active a season’s going to be and we also have better historical data sets.”