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Seasonal hurricane forecasts: read and forget

The approach of the beginning of hurricane season on June 1 brings with it a flurry of predictions from long-range forecasters. It seems that just about everyone in the weather forecasting business has an opinion about how active the upcoming season will be. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released it's official pre-season forecast on May 22. The official guess is a “near normal” season with 10 to 15 tropical storms, 4 to 9 hurricanes and 1 to 4 major hurricanes.

The NOAA says its forecast is based on macro climate factors that influence hurricane activity and climate models designed to predict hurricane activity. Most prominent forecasters agreed with NOAA that the 2013 season could be very busy. So far, so good. The problem is that predicting the number of storms and their intensity is an inexact science. For instance last year's pre-season forecast called for an intense season with 13 to 20 named storms and 3 to 6 major hurricanes. The actual total was a grand total of 2 hurricanes with only one tropical storm making landfall.

After the 2013 season hurricane forecasters were left to deal with awkward questions about how their predictions ended up so far out of whack with the way the season developed. In an interview with National Public Radio forecasters conceded they were mislead by extremely warm Atlantic Ocean water temperatures and the lack of a strong Pacific El-Nino, which usually means plenty of fuel for the giant storms. What seems to have put a damper on the tropical kettle was an unusual wind pattern that drove dry, dusty air from the Sahara Desert into the Atlantic incubator.

Even when the forecasts are pretty much on target, they are still of limited use. For example, the NOAA's forecast does not try to predict how many storms will hit land or where they might land. Forecasters always point out that there are any number of variables that could wildly effect the number and strength of storms.

The 2014 NOAA forecast points out that the ability to predict the occurrence and intensity of the El-Nino and La Nina phenomena in the Pacific (which can heavily impact storm formation in the Atlantic) is very limited. There's also the fact that predicting local weather patterns on a daily basis is difficult enough. Trying to make accurate predictions about the long-term conditions that can lead to hurricane formation is a problem on massively larger scale

The purpose of this column is not to belittle the efforts of meteorologists and hurricane experts. It's rather to help readers understand that long-range hurricane forecasts have to be taken with at least a grain of salt by anyone living in an area that might get hit by a hurricane.

Local forecasters and emergency managers always read such forecasts with a great deal of interest, but they are also skeptical about the real value of those predictions. The hurricane season of 1992 is a good one to keep in mind. The first named storm of that season didn't form until mid-August, but Hurricane Andrew would go on to devastate south Florida and much of Lousiana on its way to becoming the costliest hurricane in United States history in terms of property damage. Forecasters and emergency managers want everyone to remember that when it comes to turning a quiet hurricane season into a bad one, “all it takes is one.”

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