This week we continue our profiles on the various agencies that make up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Since we are in the peak time of Atlantic Hurricane season right now, it seems like a great time to take a closer look at what the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center do, and some of the services they provide.
About the NHC
Like the Storm Prediction Center, the National Hurricane Center is part of the National Center for Environmental Prediction, or NCEP. The facility is located in Miami, Florida, and its mission is consistent with that of the National Weather Service: to save lives, mitigate property loss, and improve economic efficiency for the public. Obviously, the forecast focus of this group of meteorologist is tropical systems, specfically in the Atlantic and East Pacific basins (the Central Pacific Hurricane Center covers other parts of the Pacific Ocean).
What do forecasters at the NHC do?
The forecasters are very busy during the hurricane season (in the Atlantic, this is the months of June through November) keeping tabs on all current and potential tropical storms in the Atlantic and East Pacific basins. Because hurricanes can also occur outside of the official ‘season’, monitoring the tropics is a 24-hour a day, 365 day-a-year, job. Additionally, NHC has a’Technology and Science Branch’ which works in conjunction with other government agencies and academic institutions to develop new tools and techniques which can enhance the NHC mission and improve forecasts and warnings. Within the TSB, the Storm Surge unit is responsible for running the Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model and forecasts sea-level rises which occur with tropical systems. This branch also conducts post-storm analyses and maintains storm surge atlases for use by emergency managers.
What do NHC forecasts look like?
Visit the NHC website on any given day, and you will see a map that looks like the image shown above. Hover your mouse or finger over any of the active storms or potential areas of interest (shown by the X’s), and you will see some quick information about those storms or areas of convection. Any active, named storms take you to much more information if you click on them:
The main image which shows up is the typical ‘track’ cone, indicating the forecast track envelope for that particular storm, as well as information about its forecast strength. Recall that the cone, or envelope, does not depict only areas which may see impacts, but rather the possible range of points which the storm center may be at for various forecast times. Storm impacts can extend well beyond the forecast center point. There are also links above the image (indicated by the little icons) to look at graphics for wind speed probabilities, warnings, and history of the storm winds. More technical information and text products are linked in the bar just underneath the storm name (e.g. ‘Discussion’ will give you the latest technical forecast discussion for that storm). In these products you will find information about observations of the storm, including any reconnaissance flights which have been or will be conducted. The ‘Archive’ link contains all past statements and graphics for that particular storm.
Forecasters also write general tropical weather discussions, marine forecasts for offshore waters, and audio briefings or podcasts for significant events.
Off-season research and other work
What do forecasters do when the tropics are inactive, many might ask? During the ‘off-season’, forecasters keep very busy with research and outreach. The NHC website contains an enormous list of educational resources- great for students, teachers, and anyone who is interested in learning more about hurricanes and how they are forecast. For example, this is an excellent page which discusses storm surge, one of the deadliest impacts of tropical systems.
If you are interested in learning about how hurricanes are named, the Saffir-Simpson scale of rating hurricane strength, climatology, records, or historical writeups on past storms, there are also resources on the NHC website.
As if this wasn’t enough, NHC is also part of the Joint Hurricane Testbed. This program focuses on developing new models, techniques, and observing systems, as well as testing prototypes of new products and methods in an effort to improve the forecast and warning process.
As you can see, forecasting hurricanes is a complex process which involves understanding science and effectively conveying that knowledge into usable information for emergency managers, decision-makers, and the general public.