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From Superstorm to Supercomputers: New Funding Improves Hurricane Forecasting


Meteorologists are predicting this year’s hurricane season will be a little more active than average.  Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – or NOAA – say there will likely be 13 to 20 named storms this season. But Jerry Bell, and official at NOAA, said this prediction is only for the season as a whole.

“This outlook for 2013 is for the overall hurricane season.  It is not a hurricane landfall forecast,” Bell said.

And James Franklin, Chief of Hurricane Forecast Operations for the National Hurricane Center in Miami says the overall forecast is only part of the story.

“Really, what’s more important than the overall activity is the fact that we can’t forecast in advance, as the season begins, what part of the basin might be affected,” Franklin said.

For that, meteorologists rely on short term forecasts, which are continuing to improve.  According to Franklin, some of these predictions are now 60% more reliable than they were 20 years ago.  These improvements are thanks, in part, to the use of supercomputers to analyze the activity of storms.

But there is still room for improvement.  Last year the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting predicted Superstorm Sandy would make landfall on the eastern seaboard four days ahead of U.S. forecasts. 

This isn’t cause for alarm.  After all, American meteorologists have access to the European models.  But the slow response of U.S. forecasts is one reason officials pushed for upgrades to NOAA supercomputers – like the one in Orlando.

Funded by the Superstorm Sandy relief act, these upgrades will allow meteorologists to enhance the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting model known as HWRF (pronounced h-wharf). 

Franklin explained the model is continually being improved.

“The HWRF is a model that will forecast track, intensity and size – it forecasts all those parameters. But the one that we’re most interested in really is the intensity prediction.  But with the upgrades that have been made, really just in the past couple years, getting the Doppler data in there on the new supercomputer, it looks like we’ll be able to make some improvements,” Franklin said.

The upgrades will allow meteorologists to incorporate much more initial data about storms, like ocean surface temperature, wind speed, and air pressure.  Then they’ll be able to run multiple simulations at the same time so they can better predict where a storm will go, and how strong it will be when it gets there.

Franklin said the key to these predictions is data.

“It starts with data, you have to be able to get those data into the model, the model has to be an accurate representation of the real atmosphere, and the model has to be able to run fast enough and at high enough detail to do a good job.  So it’s a complicated business, but its gets better each year, and as a result our forecasts tend to get better each year,” Franklin said.

But no matter how good U.S. forecasting gets, Bell says the key is being prepared.

“We know hurricanes are going to strike the United States both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  We just don’t know when – nobody knows when.  That’s why you need to prepare every hurricane season regardless of the seasonal outlook,” Bell said.

Listeners can visit ready.gov for more information about hurricane preparedness.

Ryan Benk contributed to the reporting of this story.