Tropical Storm Erika on the afternoon of Saturday, August 26, 2015 (Credit: NOAA)

Mitigating the Uncertainty in Tropical Forecasting

There has been some commotion since the final advisory was written for what was once Tropical Storm Erika due to the seemingly subpar forecasts issued by the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Erika was a fickle cyclone; remaining fairly weak and disorganized with the low-level center of circulation separating from its mid and upper level circulation on several occasions (perhaps during most of its existence?). This constant detachment due to upper level wind shear didn’t allow computer weather models to initialize properly; both in the cylcone’s position and intensity. They became almost unreliable. Simply put, the forecast uncertainty was much higher than normal.

I’ve laid out a few suggestions for the NHC that perhaps could mitigate the uncertainty in tropical forecasting and improve their overall presence in media (both traditional and non-traditional).

Some of these recommendations might already be in the planning phase at the National Hurricane Center but it can’t hurt to re-emphasize some of the shortcomings in tropical forecasting especially in the communication of forecast confidence.

Please feel free to add notes and your thoughts on the right-hand side of this article.

  • If the story on a particular cyclone will be its difficult predictability then get ahead of the story and lay it all out there; what you know and don’t know.
  • Create a way to highlight confidence in a given forecast; both tropical cyclone intensity and track.
  • Communicate confidence in a shareable and social media-friendly graphic. Do not bury it in wordy discussions or advisories. Meteorologists know where to look to ascertain the forecaster’s confidence but the general public does not.
  • If the forecast confidence is extremely low in position/track then do not publish a 5-day projected path. Limit to just 72 hours out (or even less!).
  • Frequently, Erika was a showcase in nowcasting. Don’t be handcuffed by official advisory times. If something needs to be addressed immediately then do so. Special advisories should not be such a rarity.
  • Show your faces! If not on traditional TV, then create short but informative videos on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It’s becoming necessary to reach more of the public in new media.
  • Additionally, where is Dr. Knabb? He was a pro on The Weather Channel. Very comfortable in front of the camera. Smooth delivery and talked impacts, impacts, impacts. He’s got to be the face of the National Hurricane Center not just for landfalling events but in these times of tricky forecasts.