New Hurricane-Forecast Tool Debuts (And Just in Time)

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
April 20, 2005
With another active hurricane season expected in a few months, meteorologists and insurance companies will have a new forecasting tool to help them predict whether late-season storms will again batter the U.S. coastline.

Researchers at England's University College London have devised a computer model that uses data from midsummer winds to predict the likelihood of hurricanes striking the United States later in the season.

The model was created by scientists at the college's Benfield Hazard Research Centre. The center is sponsored by Benfield, a London-based reinsurance company that is one of the world's largest.

The new model could get a real workout right from the start. Forecasters think a ten-year trend of active hurricane seasons will continue this summer.

William Gray, a pioneer in long-range hurricane forecasting who is based at Colorado State University, thinks seven hurricanes will form in the Atlantic Basin this year. (The region includes the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.) The professor of atmospheric science predicts that three of those storms will be major ones, with winds exceeding 111 miles an hour (179 kilometers an hour).

Gray believes there's a better-than-even chance that one of those intense hurricanes will make landfall somewhere on the U.S. east coast.

Gray also thinks the U.S. Gulf Coast faces a higher-than-usual risk of taking a hit from a major hurricane, although not as high as the Atlantic Coast.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.

Computer Model

The computer model developed by University College London researchers analyzes data from July wind patterns from sea level up to about 25,000 feet (about 7,500 meters).

The model predicts whether the winds are forming "steering currents." Such currents would guide hurricanes to the U.S. shores from August through October, when most storms form.

Last summer those steering currents helped shove five hurricanes ashore—four in Florida and one in North Carolina.

During some hurricane seasons, however, the wind currents tend to push storms away from U.S. shores.

The data for the new computer model—which is described in the latest issue of the science journal Nature—is based on July wind patterns from 1950 to 2004.

Mark Saunders, a research climate physicist at University College London, said the computer model is a "breakthrough" in hurricane forecasting that could help the insurance industry minimize financial loses during hurricane season.

"It reduces the financial risk and uncertainty of the hurricane season as a whole," Saunders said.

Insurance companies paid out 23 billion dollars (U.S.) in U.S. damage claims because of the 2004 hurricane season. This year they face the prospect of covering billions of dollars' worth of new claims if more hurricanes come roaring off the ocean this summer.

Since 1950 the annual cost of U.S. hurricane damage, adjusted for today's inflation, has averaged about 5.6 billion dollars (U.S.).

Saunders developed the computer forecasting model with his colleague, Adam Lea. Saunders said their model has a 74 percent accuracy rate in predicting whether a hurricane will make landfall in the U.S. The model does not predict where hurricanes are likely to strike, however.

Still, even knowing that a hurricane landfall is likely somewhere in the United States could give insurers enough warning to protect themselves from a potentially staggering financial hit.

If a busy peak season is expected, insurance companies could reduce their possible losses by taking out their own reinsurance with other companies specializing in that kind of coverage, Saunders said.

Reinsurance is the coverage that insurers buy for their own protection. This reinsurance would help insurers pay out hurricane damage claims, if necessary.

Florida Prepares

Many residents of Florida are scrambling to upgrade the storm protection of their homes, even as they dig a little deeper into their pockets to pay increased insurance premiums.

Public officials in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, had mixed reactions to news of the new hurricane-forecasting tool.

None of last season's storms struck the Keys. But the slender, low-lying islands off the southern tip of the Florida peninsula have been raked by some of the most devastating storms on record, including Hurricane Donna in 1960 and powerful unnamed hurricanes in 1935 and 1919.

Irene Toner, Monroe County's emergency-management director, said the new forecasting tool could help public officials get ready for an active hurricane season.

"We are very open to any new programs out there, any new tools or new innovations that would help us with planning," Toner said. "Of course we'll keep an eye on [this forecasting model]. We need to stay on top of innovations like this. Especially after last year, we'll welcome anything that's out there."

Toner's office is responsible for issuing evacuation orders for the Keys. Last summer the four hurricanes that struck Florida threatened the Keys, and each time Monroe County officials ordered the islands evacuated.

Luckily for the Keys, all four storms veered away and struck elsewhere. But Toner said many Monroe County business owners were angry, because the evacuations had cost them millions of dollars in lost income. "People were not happy about it," she said. "Especially the tourist industry. They were very unhappy."

But Toner says emergency-management officials aren't trying to win popularity contests. The results could be catastrophic if they don't order an evacuation and a powerful hurricane blasts the Keys.

About 80,000 people live in the Keys and another 40,000 tourists are likely to be visiting at any given time during the hurricane season.

Jeffrey Pinkus, mayor of the Keys city of Marathon, said he realizes that the new computer forecasting model could help the insurance industry. But he said he doesn't see how it could help him and his staff.

"The work itself is impressive, but what good it will do us, I have no idea," he said.

Pinkus, who also is a building contractor, said the demand by Keys residents for beefed up, protective hurricane shutters has been unusually heavy since last summer.

Normally workers can install the shutters two to three weeks after homeowners order them. But this year, the waiting time has been extended to eight to ten weeks, he said.

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

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