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Forecasting Hurricane Strength, Destruction Using New Model

Sep 16, 2014 11:06 AM EDT
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Hurricanes are known for their unpredictability and potential for destruction. And while current forecasts are helpful, they are sometimes inaccurate and mislead the public. Now, new research offers a different way to predict hurricane strength and destruction, giving people a better idea of how to prepare for such storms.

Researchers from Florida State University, led by associate professor of meteorology Vasu Misra and fourth-year doctoral student Michael Kozar, created a new statistical model that complements current hurricane forecasting by showing the size of storms, not just the wind speed.

The model predicts the amount of integrated kinetic energy within Atlantic tropical cyclones - energy that indicates the overall size and strength of a storm, in addition to the maximum wind speed. While wind speed can indeed be a good indicator of a storm's damage potential, sometimes the two don't go hand in hand. This new model improves upon as well as complements existing forecasting tools, allowing forecasters to better assess the risk of hurricanes that make landfall.

"We don't perceive this to be an alternative to how storms are explained to the public, but a complement," Misra, co-director of the Florida Climate Institute, said in a statement.

In the past, forecasters have traditionally focused on wind speeds rather than strength and intensity to predict how bad a storm will be. For instance, based on the customary Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, a storm with wind speeds of 74 to 95 mph would be called a Category 1 storm, while a hurricane that has wind speeds of 157 mph or higher would be listed as a Category 5, the worst kind.

You would think that Category 5 hurricanes would be the most devastating; however, it's actually the seemingly less worrisome Category 1 and 2 storms that have caused the most damage in the United States in the past.

These lesser category storms may have slower wind speeds, but they may be large and widespread like Hurricane Ike from 2008, which caused major damage.

"When the National Hurricane Center says Category 1, the attitude by the public is that it's fine and they can live through it," Misra explained. "But, the damage by flooding is typically more widespread in larger storms."

"It's the wind that gets all the attention, but it's the flooding that causes much of the damage," added Kozar.

The research, supported by funding from NOAA and the US Department of Agriculture, was published in the journal Monthly Weather Review.

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