With climactic extremes – extreme heat in Europe, extensive flooding on the sub-continents, unseasonal rain, etc – becoming the norm, technology is being brought into play to predict the unpredictable. As this FT article explains, “According to meteorologists at Nasa, a warming earth is producing major storms with more intense rainfall and larger storm surges.” This long read from the FT explains how conventional methods of monitoring hurricanes are being enhanced by the use of tech. We would recommend that you read this piece in full not least to see the stomach churning graphic halfway down the article which shows the non-linear increase in the past twenty years in the numbers of hurricanes hitting America’s Atlantic basis. “Of the top six seasons, as measured by the number of named storms, five have fallen in the 2000s. “The last few years have been insane, to say the least”, says Barry Keim, a climatologist and hurricane expert from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “I spent many years being very sceptical of climate change, but you can’t deny the data,” he says.”
The article begins by explaining how hurricanes have been conventionally monitored in the US: “By the time Lieutenant Colonel Sean Cross realised he was in trouble, it was too late to turn back. Cross’s plane slammed into the wall of Hurricane Michael, a violent Category 5 hurricane that in October 2018 was barrelling towards the coast of Florida…..As part of a squadron of 10 planes with 100 flying crew members and 1,300 staff in total, Cross is part of a team that is routinely dispatched by the National Hurricane Center in Miami to scope out any potentially dangerous storms brewing at sea.
Sending planes into storms to gather information first began in the second world war, and the squadron remains an integral part of the US hurricane monitoring strategy. The unit is the only one of its kind in the world, and covers an area stretching from Hawaii to the Caribbean.
As the planes make multiple passes through the storm walls, information about the air pressure inside the hurricane is gathered, along with temperatures, wind speeds and humidity.
All of the data is beamed straight back to Miami via satellites, where it’s fed into modelling systems to help forecasters track where the hurricane might go next, and how bad things might get.”
It is in these modelling systems that the Americans have made vast investments over the past three decades as the financial and human impact of hurricanes has increased exponentially. The FT interviewed Ken Graham, the Director of America’s National Weather Service (NWS) and learnt that: “Briefing reporters on Wednesday morning, NWS director Ken Graham said the statistics around Hurricane Ian were changing so rapidly that he had brought his phone to the briefing podium to make sure he could deliver the most up-to-the-minute information.
The US government, said Graham, was “throwing everything” at Ian as it fought to track it, including satellites, radars and the hurricane hunters. All of the extra data was plumbed straight into the weather service’s forecasting models, said Graham.
Ian’s path proved especially difficult to predict; in the week before it made landfall, its projected track fluctuated by hundreds of miles. Forecasters used a so-called cone of uncertainty to illustrate to the public the wide range of areas that could be affected.
But its intensity was clear. The federal forecasters predicted storm surges of 12ft to 18ft up and down the shorelines of western Florida, and more than 2ft of rainfall. The state placed over 2.5mn people living in coastal communities under mandatory evacuation orders, likely saving many lives.
The projections of Ian’s track and intensity reflect decades of research and investment from US scientists, who have vastly raised the quality of their forecasting as satellites and computing power have improved.
Eric Blake, the acting chief of the NHC’s hurricane specialist unit, says mistakes in track forecasts have decreased 70 per cent since 2000, while errors in forecasts about how intense a storm will be are between 40 and 45 per cent lower than they were in 2010.
Blake says big improvements in the resolution of images captured by satellites, the speed at which they are transmitted to earth and the increasing sophistication of numerical models run by computers have all enhanced the quality of forecasts.
“It’s not just down to one thing, the amount of tech improvements over the last 30 years is very, very vast,” says Blake….
The US government is now investing millions of dollars in boosting its computing power for climate and weather-related events. Earlier this year, NOAA announced it would triple its supercomputing capacity, spending half a billion dollars on two 12-petaflop General Dynamics systems.
Government climatologists and meteorologists are in the process of coding a new forecasting model for hurricanes, whic will be tested this year and is slated to come into operation at the start of the 2023 hurricane season.
Brian Gross, director of NOAA’s Environmental Modeling Center, says the new supercomputers would enable scientists to access higher resolution images of earth’s atmosphere and the oceans. This would give them a more detailed view on smaller patterns and trends emerging in storms being watched, as well as powering the simulation of more complex storm models.
“We can add different processes, like snow forming in the top of thunderheads, and how that snow melts in the rain as it falls through the atmosphere,” says Gross. “We have more complex algorithms that require more supercomputing.”
Gross says that with those extra details, he is confident that from 2023, scientists will be even better able to monitor and predict where the worst hurricanes will strike, in turn helping people move out of harm’s way. “I think we’re going to do better,” says Gross.””
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