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May 11, 2010

AccuWeather's hurricane forecast: "Big"'s Joe Bastardi has released his spring hurricane forecast to those of us who won't pay for his company's pricier services, which made it available weeks ago. "It's a big year coming up," he told me in an interview Tuesday morning. Here's the link to the story we posted today. It will run Wednesday in print.

Hurricane Ike, Texas, 2008Readers are already yawning at the predictions. "We hear the same prediction every year," they say. Or, "Why should we believe them? They can't even predict the weather for the Preakness on Saturday."

Well, actually, near-term weather forecasts are now quite reliable. Saturday should be sunny for the Preakness. Long-term hurricane forecasts are less so. But the challenge is greater.

And it is true that hurricane season forecasters have been repeating themselves a lot in recent years. That's partly because we are in an active phase of the multi-decadal Atlantic cycle. It began in 1995, and we have seen more active hurricane seasons most years since then, compared with the long-term averages. So we can expect them to call for an "active" season quite frequently until the decadal cycle shifts.

It's also true that the same forecasters found themselves backpedaling on last season's forecasts for another active season. That's because the Pacific was heating up last summer, moving into a moderate El Nino, which tends to suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic.Hurricane Ike, 2008

So the spring forecasts were too high. In March, called for 13 named storms, cutting that to 10 in May as the El Nino numbers came in. In April, the team at Colorado State University predicted 12. WeatherBug said we'd see 11 to 13. And in May, NOAA predicted 9 to 14.

In the end, we saw only 9 named storms, just a shade below the long-term averages. There were only 3 hurricanes in 2009, roughly half the long-term average. Two of those became "major" (Cat. 3 or higher) storms, a bit below the average of 2.3. It was blessedly quiet in the tropics.

Forecasts can miss their target, and Bastardi freely admits it. "In 2007 I was wrong," he said. "I thought it would be a big year in Florida. Instead, all the [storm] tracks went south and east of Florida." He ticked off a couple of other forecast "busts."

Bastardi had the right idea about this past winter, warning last fall we'd see the coldest, snowiest winter in these parts since 2002-2003. And he was right about the snow, except that it was WAY snowier than even his forecast of 25 inches at BWI. (We got a record-shattering 77 inches. Our average at BWI is 18 inches.) And, he expected that the most snow would fall in January and February. He got the February part right, but January saw  few flakes, and he didn't anticipate the big December storm.

But hey, these are forecasts. Informed guesses. They are not the TV listings. We shouldn't rely on them for their precision, but consider them fair warning. Bastardi's hurricane forecast, and those that will follow in the coming weeks,  should be reminders that these storms are very real, and potentially terrible possibilities. We need to consider them in our planning and preparations (thinking of a September cruise?), and pay attention when real storms appear on the horizon.

And if the direst forecasts fizzle, we should celebrate.

(TOP: AP Photo/ Dallas Morning News; BOTTOM: Smiley N. Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Posted by Frank Roylance at 5:39 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Hurricanes


"And if the direst forecasts fizzle, we should celebrate."

-- 100% right.

I predict a rather calm season ahead. What's the difference between my prediction and Joe's? He probably made his using software. Some programmer wrote a piece of software that predicts the weather, a company marketed and sold it, and all a meteorologist has to do is read what pops up on the screen. I have no trust in predictions like this anymore. To me it's like crying wolf. Of course the media eats this up as a sensational news story and insurance companies love that they can use this as an excuse to increase premiums. Sometimes these forecasts will be right, but if you always predict the same thing each year your chance of being right goes up due to the cyclical nature of things.

We have enough trouble telling what the temperature will be a few days from now. Most weather in forecasted a week away doesn't happen on the day forecasted. The weather service still can't make up its mind how much snow we got months ago. People want to look at the weather forecast and feel happy that they're getting a good look of things to come. It's harder and harder to do that given that wild weather brings in more viewers causing a conflict of interest.

FR: First, be honest. You have no idea what went into Bastardi's forecast. And from your comment I take it you'd rather we had no forecasts. Let the weather - hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms - come as a surprise like they did 200 years ago, or maybe warn people only when the storms appear on radar? Let the bodies fall where they may? Or should we do the best we can within the limitations of current science, and let people weigh the information as they see fit ? In his new book, "Warnings," Mike Smith argues that improvements in weather forecasting since WW II have arguably saved more lives (hurricanes, tornadoes, weather-related aviation accidents) than research into cancer or heart disease.

I totally agree with Frank about predictions. When I was growing up in Indiana in the 1950s and 60s, many times we got tornado warnings a couple of minutes AFTER the tornado touched down, if we got that much notice. Now, forecasters can reliably predict when an area should watch for serious storms, and where tornadoes might form.

When I was in college (in Indiana), a classmate from Fredrick, MD, stated he'd rather face a hurricane than a tornado. That is, until he saw a telephone pole where a tornado had 'inserted' straw into the wood 1/4 to 1/2" deep, and made the telephone pole look like a yellow porcupine. The tornado (I think an F2) completely leveled all structures in a several mile path. The people in the path of the tornado had a couple of minutes warning, so the casualties were fairly low.

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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