A new hurricane cone will look different this season. What to know

Michaela Mulligan, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Weather News

TAMPA, Fla. — It’s once again that dreaded time of year when TV screens light up with colorful graphics of cones and swirly storms.

It has been a minute since we last had to put on our thinking caps and untangle those graphics.

While the National Hurricane Center’s forecast cone has remained mostly unchanged over the years, there are some tweaks to keep in mind this year.

One is an experimental cone set to roll out in August. Forecasters say it will act as a supplement, not a replacement, to the forecast cone we’re used to seeing.

The change, the hurricane center said, is to help people understand their risk of strong winds during tropical storms and hurricanes.

Here’s what to know about changes to the forecast cone (and some reminders) this year.

—First, a refresher

Ahead of a storm, the National Hurricane Center issues watches and warnings to areas that could feel its force. These advisories act as a guide to allow residents to understand their risk.

But keeping them all straight, especially in times of emergency, is daunting.

Forecasters break down watches and warnings into three categories: Risk of storm surge, tropical storm-force winds and hurricane-force winds.

Storm surge is often the biggest threat to people and property along coasts. Rising waters from Hurricane Ian in 2022 killed 41 people. Storm surge of up to 15 feet in some areas of Fort Myers Beach leveled buildings.

The hurricane center places an area under a storm surge watch when dangerous water inundation is possible, generally two days before rising waters.

A storm surge warning is issued about 36 hours before forecasters expect a life-threatening surge will occur.

Storm surge watches and warnings are not shown on a track forecast. Instead, they receive their own graphic.

While surge warnings showcase the threat of water, tropical storm and hurricane warnings display wind threats.

Forecasters issue a hurricane watch when hurricane conditions — wind speeds of 74 mph or higher — are possible within a specific area. They are issued about two days before tropical-storm-force winds could arrive.

When your home is under a watch, that’s when officials say you should begin storm preparations and review evacuation plans.

A hurricane warning is issued when hurricane conditions are expected within 36 hours or less, and it means it’s time to finish preparations and get hunkered down — or be ready to evacuate should local officials advise you to do so.

Tropical storm watches and warnings are issued when winds of 39 to 73 mph are possible in an area, and they follow the same timelines as hurricane watches and warnings.

—How watches and warnings are changing

The timeframes and definitions for these watches and warnings will be the same, but how they’ll look will be a little different.

Previously the National Hurricane Center issued these warnings only in its full advisory packets, released four times a day (at 5 a.m., 11 a.m., 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. EDT). However, this year, forecasters can issue watches and warnings during any of its advisories between those time slots, too.


The change is to allow “additional flexibilities” for issuing the watches and warnings, the hurricane center said.

On top of that, the look of these watches and warnings is getting a revamp.

Starting around Aug. 15, the hurricane center will release an “experimental” hurricane cone graphic that will feature blocks of color showing areas under a watch or warning, according to forecasters.

“Watches and warnings in effect for land areas will take precedence over the cone,” according to an announcement from the hurricane center discussing the change.

Areas denoted in pink will be under a hurricane watch, while a tropical storm watch area will be in yellow. Communities swathed in red will be under a hurricane warning and a tropical storm warning area will be in blue.

Previously, watches and warnings — represented by the same colors — were only highlighted along coastal areas. The newest graphic will also show the risk of winds to more inland areas.

“Recommendations from social science research suggest that the addition of inland watches and warnings to the cone graphic will help communicate inland wind risk ... while not overcomplicating the current version of the graphic,” the hurricane center said.

An example of the experimental cone showed what watches and warnings would look like using Hurricane Ian’s path in 2022.

Much of Florida’s southwest coast, along with inland areas such as Orlando, are highlighted in red, showing the areas under a hurricane warning. Surrounding areas are in blue, showcasing a tropical storm warning for those counties.

—What to know about the "cone of uncertainty"

When a named storm reaches tropical storm strength, the hurricane center pulls out its forecast cone.

The National Hurricane Center’s track forecast cone is vital in understanding the direction a storm is moving. But what’s important to remember is what the cone is not showing you.

The cone does not depict the size or strength of a storm. Instead, it shows where the storm’s center is likely to be. Even that comes with caveats.

Roughly three out of 10 times, the center of a storm will stray outside of the forecast cone.

And even places outside the cone can still feel a storm’s wrath.

Take Hurricane Idalia. The storm made landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region, nearly 200 miles away from Tampa Bay, which was then out of the forecast cone. Still, storm surge flooded low-lying homes across the area.

The hurricane center will continue to release its current hurricane cone graphic alongside the experimental one. The current cone will be unchanged, forecasters said.

A two-year-old study from researchers at the University of Miami found that residents have difficulty understanding multiple aspects of the cone.

The hurricane center said it’s continuing to review how the public understands the forecast cones and the best ways to present it.

“The primary goal is to find ways to simply and effectively communicate tropical cyclone risk without making the graphic too complicated,” the hurricane center stated.

An archived National Hurricane Center forecast track graphic depicts a five-day outlook. The hurricane center will continue to release this graphic, alongside an experimental graphic that includes an entirely white transparent cone, for tropical storms and hurricanes in the 2024 hurricane season.

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