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Forecasting hurricanes. Not!

By Alan Caruba
web posted May 5, 2008

In late April, AccuWeather.com, led by Joe Bastardi, its chief meteorologist, issued a news release that was, to be kind, pure mush. The early warning forecast for 2008's June to November hurricane season said that conditions like La Nina and a "continued warm water cycle in the Atlantic Basin" held forth the "chance for U.S. landfalling storms."

HurricaneThe operative word here is "chance" when predicting hurricanes because it is largely a question of gaming odds on how many. What no self-respecting meteorologist, whether in private forecasting or working for the U.S. government's weather service, wants you to know is that their highly sophisticated computer weather models quite simply cannot factor in a whole range of factors, not the least of which is clouds. Yes, clouds.

As I am fond of telling people, the best definition of the weather is "chaos" which is to say, beyond maybe four days, accurately predicting it is nearly impossible. This is not to denigrate the work of meteorologists and the scholarship of climatologists who study long-term trends and cycles. Bless them, bless them all!

Men have been trying to predict the weather since ancient shamans studied the entrails of chickens. The weather is one of the great determinant factors in all aspects of life on Earth and it is in a constant state of change.

A fine example is the last ten thousand years or so of temperate, even moderate, weather the planet has enjoyed. It gave rise to civilizations based on agriculture, allowing some to grow food while others engaged in conquest on foot, on horseback or sailing to places they then claimed for themselves. Nasty bunch those human beings. What we call history some might uncharitably call organized thievery, but farmers still want to know if it will rain next week.

Knowing about hurricanes takes on importance these days because most of the nation's population lives within fifty miles of either coast. Since hurricanes are an East Coast and Gulf of Mexico event, the West Coast has to content itself with earthquakes (entirely unpredictable), wildfires, and other unpleasantries.

In recent years, environmentalists and just flat-out liars like Al Gore have taken to claiming that global warming has been responsible for more intense hurricanes, but in April a prominent hurricane specialist, MIT's Kerry Emanuel, publicly reversed his opinion that global warming had anything to do with it.
 
The fact that the Earth has been cooling since 1998 might have had something to do with that. Emanuel said he'd checked his data and now concluded that there would not be any substantial increase in frequency or intensity of hurricanes for the next two centuries. He had nothing to offer regarding a pending ice age.

In July 2007, James M. Taylor of the Heartland Institute pointed out that the previous month's issue of Nature had published an article about the way scientists had documented Atlantic Ocean hurricane activity dating back 270 years. "They found the 1970s and 1980s were periods of ‘anomalously low' hurricane activity compared with historic norms." This ironically corresponds to the period when environmentalists switched from warning about a coming ice age to global warming. What followed in the 1990s was merely "a recovery to normal hurricane activity."

Given the record of some presumably very smart meteorological people, it almost doesn't matter what any of them have to say on the subject of hurricanes. I'm not being mean because even the predictors are quick to say they haven't gotten things right in a while. In fact, for the last three years, they've been mostly wrong or shall we just say surprised?

"We calling for a very active hurricane season this year," said Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University, "but not as active as the 2004 or 2005 seasons." In 2005 Hurricane Katrina obliterated New Orleans and a large swath of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Though everyone knew the Gulf was due a Category Five hurricane it still totally astonished most people. Typically they were not prepared and the aftermath was a perfect example of why expecting either your state or the federal government to do anything right is probably a bad idea. In the end, local communities, neighbors, put things right.

The thing about hurricanes that make landfall so awful is the fact that so many people live close to the East Coast. It just intensifies the level of damage even a mid-sized hurricane can and will do. Predicting how many will occur, however, is (a) a great way to get your name in the newspaper and (b) fairly useless. If there was a reasonable level of accuracy it might be helpful, but bad forecasts just make people anxious for no good reason.

I personally love scientists, but they often get things wrong, are oblivious to human nature, and haven't a clue how their predictions—when they make them—can have seriously consequences in places that depend heavily on tourism, which is pretty much the entire East Coast from Florida up to the Carolinas.

The way I see it, if folks want to vacation in Florida between June and November they can take their chances just like the people who live there. I lived in Florida for four years while a student at the University of Miami and returned for a brief stint around 1962. If there were hurricanes then I was blissfully unaware of them. Coming from New Jersey I just assumed they were just really big storms. There is no denying I was, well, young and not the brightest child on the bus.

This fatalistic behavior pretty much describes most folks in the path of any hurricane. An Associated Press headline in November 2007 said, "A quiet season for hurricanes stirs some fears." Having dodged the bullet, Floridians returned to a reasoned degree of apathy after putting out the patio furniture once again and those responsible for public safety officials were worried about it.

The point is that it just doesn't matter how many hurricanes are predicted. What matters is how many make it across the Atlantic Ocean and arrive with a bad attitude. There will be hurricanes. They are a perfectly natural event.

Be satisfied that satellites can spot them and give you some idea where they are headed. That's called progress. What you do with the information after that is your responsibility.

If any of us had a scintilla of humility, we would know that we have two choices, either batten down the hatches or run like hell. ESR

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. He blogs at http://factsnotfantasy.blogspot.com. © Alan Caruba, May 2008


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