The Gulf Coast: The Past, Present, and Future of Hurricane Analysis

Posted by on May 30, 2013 in Past Storms, Storm Science | Comments Off on The Gulf Coast: The Past, Present, and Future of Hurricane Analysis

Graphic of a hurricane on a map

Major Hurricanes

It is no secret that the Gulf Coast has been ravaged with devastation from hurricanes. These natural disasters causes communities to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Efforts are being implemented to better prepare residents with readiness.

Some major hurricanes in the area over the past 20 years have been Ike (2008), Wilma (2005), Rita (2005), Karina (2005), Dennis (2005), Jeanne (2004), Ivan (2004), Frances (2004) Charley (2004), Isabel (2003), Iris (2001), Keith (2000), Floyd (1999), Mitch (1998), and Opal (1995).

Hurricane Katrina Could Have Been Avoided

Since 2001 Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, had knowledge that a major hurricane would devastate New Orleans. He led a team to study the public health impacts of hurricanes on the city.

“A slow-moving Category 3 hurricane or larger will flood the city. There will be between 17 and 20 feet of standing water, and New Orleans as we now know it will no longer exist,” said Heerden months before Hurricane Rita devastated the city.

That same year the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) listed the top three serious potential disasters the United States could face. They were a terrorist attack on New York City, a massive earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane strike on New Orleans.

Despite the Corps of Engineers not expecting the levees to break and other officials not believing a hurricane would hit, Heerden counted on the wetlands to protect New Orleans from a hurricane surge. The wetlands and barrier islands were the city’s outer line of defense.

Other sources such as Scientific American’s, National Geographic, and the Houston Chronicle predicted an eventual massive flood hitting New Orleans, due to the city sinking, the erosion of the protective Mississippi River delta, and lost of wetlands.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Predicting Hurricanes is not an Exact Science

In 2010 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted between 8 to 14 hurricanes. The exact number was actually 12 hurricanes. NOAA also predicted between 3 to 7 hurricanes to be major. The exact number was 5 actually intense hurricanes. Future hurricane predictions should be more accurate earlier on in the forecasting process to allow residents to better prepare.

The reason scientists cannot predict hurricanes early enough for cities to be prepared before it makes landfall is because there is no certainty of the position of a hurricane until it is too late to properly respond.  Until hours before it hits landfall, it will not be certain that a hurricane will even hit a city. The result is residents are left with almost no time to arrange their belongings and evacuate to safety.

Trying to predict the intensity of a hurricane is a major issue. There are factors that can increase or decrease a hurricane’s intensity. One of these factors is The Loop Current, a stream of deep warm water, gives a lot of intensity to a hurricane. While a hurricane stirs the ocean, it only churns up more warm water. Since the Loop Current changes position, depth, and strength over the years, it makes predicating hurricanes difficult. A hurricane that strikes the Loop Current can suddenly strengthen to a greater category.

Analyzing Hurricane Rita

5 days before hitting landfall Rita was a tropical storm. Over 30 hours the hurricane grew from a Category 1 to a Category 5. The hurricane was later downgraded to Category 3.

Hurricane Rita traveled farther north than predicted, thus making the Houston evacuation not as important as New Orleans’s. Models used for Hurricane Rita were widely varied in their predications, thus making it harder to forecast. 

The Cost of Accuracy

Nearly 10 years of hurricane predications by two major institutions have been right only about half the time, according to a review by a NBC affiliate station in Miami. The problem arises from storms that are constantly transforming, making it very difficult to accurately predicate something months in advance.

The federal government still relies partly on computer models to predict what hurricanes will do. Scientist can then predict a hurricane’s path 3 to 5 days in advance once it has formed. As the amount of time before a hurricane hits land reduces, so do errors.

Errors in hurricane prediction have a great effect on the livelihood of people. A mistake by one hundred miles could be all the difference in the world on whether or not residents should evacuate.

To combat inaccuracies, Shell and NOAA teamed up to bring new technology in the Gulf Coast to improve ocean and weather observations. The idea behind the project is to improve the accuracy of future forecasts.

Hurricane Katrina, 8 Years Later

Hurricane Katrina’s course and strength were predicted accurately 3 to 4 days in advance. The National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center were very accurate in forecasting the hurricane. However, local government officials did little to nothing to prepare the city of New Orleans.

 Despite these accuracies, 5 days before Hurricane Katrina hit landfall it was named a tropical storm. 1 day before reaching landfall it was moved to a category 5 hurricane.

Of course not all hurricanes can be predicted with such accuracy. In 2011 the National Hurricane Center predicated between 6 to10 hurricanes and between 3 to 6 major hurricanes. The final result tallied to be 7 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes.

Improving the Model

Hurricane predications are created using models from several different supercomputers located around the globe.

A new computer program called the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecast System (HWRF) can track the shifting conditions that affect where a hurricane goes. Real-time data for the model stems from sources including satellites, buoys, and aircraft. HWRF could eventually narrow the uncertainty of where a hurricane will hit.