August 29, 2011

Don’t pay any attention to people who are saying that government officials over-reacted by urging us all to prepare for Hurricane Irene. The past 48 hours were a textbook example of the value of good preparation. This was a massive, slow-moving storm, and forecasters correctly predicted days in advance that the problem would be huge amounts of rain and flooding, rather than wind. Many, many more lives could have been lost had people not heeded orders to evacuate the areas that have been flooded by rivers and streams overflowing their banks.

Meteorologists did an amazing job of predicting this particular storm’s path. Retired National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield described it as a "gold medal forecast. I don’t think there’s any doubt," he said. "I think they saved lives." By Tuesday night, they predicted that Hurricane Irene would rake the coast. And on Friday morning - 24 hours before landfall - they accurately predicted the storm’s next day location to within 10 miles. That is extraordinarily accurate.

The main reason that meteorology (the science of predicting weather) is getting more accurate is that we are building better computer models, and scientists are also getting more and better data to plug into those models. As Hurricane Irene formed in the Caribbean, days before it made landfall in the US, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) sent up old-fashioned propeller planes and weather balloons into the storm. They gathered Doppler radar information, which was then plugged into computer models that helped to predict how the storm would be develop.

Twenty years ago, 24-hour forecasts were lucky if they got it right within 100 miles. With Irene, that was about the accuracy of the forecast five days ahead of the storm. The more we learn about hurricanes, the better our chances of staying safe.


Photo: GLENN RUSSELL, Burlington Free Press

Posted by: Seymour Simon

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