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2007 Hurricane Season Ending Raises Forecast Concerns

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
November 30, 2007
 
The 2007 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially ends today, has—like last year—failed to live up to the predictions of forecasters.

Now some experts fear the second year of inaccurate preseason predictions will shake the public's faith in all hurricane forecasts—even when a storm is bearing down upon them.

"I'm concerned that the public could lose confidence in the forecasting of individual storms because of the inaccuracies of long-range forecasts," said Max Mayfield, a hurricane specialist at WPLG-TV in Miami and former director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

Meteorologists at Colorado State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted as many as 17 named storms in the Atlantic Basin this summer.

But only 14 storms formed between June 1—the official start of the season—and today. The total does not include Tropical Storm Andrea, which formed off the coast of Georgia three weeks before the season's start.

The problem, he said, is that there is widespread public interest in the preseason hurricane forecasts.

"The most regularly asked question I had—even before, How are the wife and kids?—was, What kind of hurricane season are we going to have?" Mayfield said.

But after so many wrong calls, the public may no longer differentiate between tenuous preseason predictions and the Hurricane Center's forecasts for individual storms, he said.

Cool Explanation

The summer did produce two extremely intense hurricanes—Dean in August and Felix in September—that caused catastrophic damage in Mexico, Mayfield notes. (Read more about Hurricane Dean and Hurricane Felix.)

And conditions were ripe this year for a very active hurricane season, so it's puzzling why it fizzled out, he said.

It was especially surprising that three storms that formed at the season's peak in September—Ingrid, Jerry, and Karen—didn't develop into powerful hurricanes, he added.

Meteorologist Phil Klotzbach, who issues the Colorado State forecasts with mentor William Gray, said the lower-than-forecast storm total was caused by several factors.

These included cooler sea-surface temperatures than anticipated and upper-level winds over the Atlantic Ocean that prevented storms from intensifying.

Windblown dust from Africa may have blocked sunlight, causing the cooler ocean temperatures, he said. Tropical storms draw their strength from warm ocean waters.

Klotzbach said he and Gray will try to factor in the presence or absence of dust in their future seasonal hurricane forecasts, noting that seasonal forecasts are still an evolving science.

Reason for Thanks

Despite the inaccuracies in recent seasonal forecasts, emergency management consultants still think they are useful.

"Some people don't like them because they say it creates unnecessary hysteria," said Hans Wagner, vice president of Early Alert in Tampa, Florida. The company provides disaster management information and assistance to government agencies and private industries.

"We look at [the forecasts] as a planning tool," he said.

While the company is always on high alert during hurricane season, "when they predict an above-normal season, that always stimulates our clients to take necessary precautions and take the threat more seriously, and that helps us if they are actually threatened by a hurricane," he added.

Joe Bastardi, a meteorologist with the private weather forecasting service AccuWeather, said too much emphasis is being placed on the accuracy of preseason forecasts.

"It's almost like it's turned into theologians arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin," Bastardi said.

"Overall, the nation got off very easy this year and last year.

"We are in a time until about 2020 that hurricane threats will be more frequent and more intense on our coastlines. So instead of saying, Ha, ha, ha, there's nothing going on, people should be thankful that there's not as much going on."

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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