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After a brutal hurricane season, there's a silver lining: better forecasts

Jenny Staletovich, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

MIAMI -- About a month before Hurricane Harvey slammed Texas with an amount of rain so immense forecasters said it could not happen more than once in a thousand years, a University of Miami scientist developing a new weather tool knew what might be in store for the Gulf Coast.

"I can't claim 'problem solved' or anything like that," said Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. But his experimental model could "preemptively improve your chances of not having a catastrophe."

The 2017 Atlantic season will be remembered among the 10 worst on record, blamed for killing hundreds, costing billions and producing hurricanes with unprecedented fury. Harvey, the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in a dozen years, set a new U.S. record for rainfall. Irma followed, hammering Florida and Puerto Rico with fierce winds that made it the strongest hurricane ever recorded outside the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. Then Maria pounded Puerto Rico, further crippling it.

But for hurricane researchers, the season that ends Nov. 30 will also be remembered as a grueling run for prediction models and emerging forecast tools like Kirtman's that up to now had not seen such monster storms.

So how did they perform? The good news is the chief model produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and used by the National Hurricane Center helped produce the best track forecasts since the center began issuing tracks. Earlier warnings came for storms nearing land, and new maps provided the arrival times for damaging winds.

"It's more than just making a better mousetrap," said Frank Marks, director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Lab in Virginia Key. "It's actually pulling all the pieces together and making them work together like an orchestra."

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The bad news is forecasting intensity remains a problem. The hurricane center correctly predicted the rapid intensification for six out of seven storms, a forecast they have been reluctant to give in the past because they lacked confidence in the models, Marks said. But another 19 storms quickly intensified without a forecast.

"There's progress but we have work to do," he said.

Among the achievements worth noting:

-- Hurricane center forecasters using NOAA's "workhouse" model made the most accurate track predictions yet. During Hurricane Irma, they beat their average by 30 percent with every forecast, according to UM hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. An experimental version tested throughout the season improved forecasts another 10 percent. The model was created in 2007 to improve track and intensity predictions by 50 percent in 10 years.

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