Hurricane Forecaster Predicts Above Average Season

March 5, 2008

Hurricane forecasters have improved their ability to track storms but need better estimates on their severity, so people will be better prepared to evacuate, officials said.

“With track forecasting, we are making big gains,” said Bill Read, the new director of the National Hurricane Center.

“We’ve done nothing with the intensity,” he said, adding “It’s the rapid changes that are the big challenge.”

Read, named permanent director last month of the Hurricane Center, is here for an annual, weeklong conference attended by roughly 200 people from 15 federal agencies that deal with hurricanes.

He noted rapid growth along the coast is complicating the evacuation process. Decisions that previously were made a day in advance might now require two days’ notice to get everyone out, he said.

On average, forecasts of a hurricane’s path 48 hours out have improved about 3.5 percent yearly since 1985. But predictions on their strength have improved only about 0.8 percent each year, said Mary Glackin, the Commerce Department’s deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere.

Better predicting intensity will provide more accurate forecasts of deadly storm surge when a hurricane blows ashore, giving emergency officials a much better idea of which areas need to be evacuated, she said.

The Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1. Colorado State University researcher William Gray is predicting an above-average season with seven hurricanes, three of them major.

The Hurricane Center won’t issue its forecast until May. Director Read said it’s too early to predict what the season will bring.

“The longer you try to forecast in advance, the more error you introduce,” Read told The Associated Press before the conference. “There’s normally a lot of error in those forecasts, so in our opinion, it’s best to wait.”

Officials also want to better understand a hurricane’s structure, to help better predict possible tornadoes when a hurricane hits, said Samuel Williamson, the head of the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorological Services and Supporting Research.

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