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Do cyclones develop ‘off-season’ in the Atlantic?

NHC_building

Headquarters for the U.S. National Hurricane Center

In the Atlantic, the official dates for the hurricane season are 1 June – 30 November. This certainly doesn’t mean that cyclones only exist during this time frame, yet 97% of all cyclones that have developed have occurred during those months.  While we really won’t know exactly how many cyclones have developed out of season prior to 20th century technological advances, there is evidence of off-season storms in the Atlantic dating back to May of 1771, and more recently tropical storm Beryl in May of 2012. Most cyclones that develop out of season do not typically impact the U.S., but there have been more than handful that have, giving us pause to think what a fickle planet our Earth can be.

Data records of cyclones from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century have to be taken with a grain of salt, as the technology advancements we enjoy now weren’t available then. However, it is interesting to note that in 1908, not one, but two cyclones developed outside of the seasonal timeline; the first occurred from March 6th-9th and impacted the Lesser Antilles with estimated winds of 100mph (161km/h); the second occurred from May 24th to May 31st with estimated winds of 75mph (121km/h), affecting the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Outer Banks were impacted yet again in May of 1951 when Hurricane Able made landfall as a category 3 with winds of 115mph (185km/h). Hurricane Alice, a category 1 storm, became the first recorded to exist in two different calendar years, when it developed on December 30th, 1954, and dissipated on January 6th, 1955. This has occurred recently, with tropical storm Zeta developing on December 30th, 2005 and dissipating on January 7th, 2006.

Going back over the past 50 years, there have been several years that have seen more than one cyclone develop out of season; 1969 (2), 1973 (2), 2003 (3), 2005 (2), 2007 (2), and 2012 (2).

Tropical Storm Beryl (May 2012)

Tropical Storm Beryl (May 2012)

Of these years, it is interesting to note that in 2003, tropical cyclones developed both before and after the standard begin/end dates (1 June/30 November). Ana developed in April, and Odette and Peter continued the already lengthened season when they both developed in early December. Also of note is that during the 2012 season, both out of season storms occurred in May within a week of each other (Alberto and Beryl), and both did  impact the U.S. With the vast amount of satellite data stored at cyclonecenter.org, it is possible that you may classify images of Alberto and/or Beryl. The take-home from all of this is that while the majority of cyclones occur within a 5-month window, cyclones can develop any time of year, which is a good reason to stay aware of what is going on in the tropics all year long.

- Kyle Gayan is an undergraduate student in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and is also a retired USAF Master Sergeant; his 20 years of service was spent exclusively in the weather career field. He recently joined the Cyclone Center team as a classifier and contributor to our social media.

Where did the tropical cyclones go this season?

In short – the western Pacific.

The Atlantic Basin was predicted by many to have an active season. But the season ended November 30th, and it was a very quiet one. There were 13 named storms in the Atlantic, of which two developed into hurricanes.  The Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) Index is used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to measure the severity of hurricane seasons.  It considers the intensity and the lifespan of storms.  The 2013 Atlantic season was well below normal; the ACE index came in at 33, about 31% of the 1981-2010 average of 104.

Super Typhoon Dale-one of our featured cyclones this year.

Super Typhoon Dale (1996) was one of our featured storms on Cyclone Center this year.

On the other side of the planet, in comparison to the Atlantic Basin, the western Pacific appears to be the ‘hot spot’ this season for strong tropical cyclones. The western Pacific has seen 31 storms, 13 being typhoons (in this region, hurricanes are called typhoons). This makes the western Pacific season slightly above the 1981-2010 average of 26 named storms. The ACE index for the Western Pacific, however,  stands at 268.3 – about 88% of the 1981-2010 average of 302.

Typhoons such as Lekima, Usagi, Fransico and of course Super Typhoon Haiyan(Yolanda) will be recorded in the 2013 history book.  A super typhoon is a typhoon whose winds exceed 150 mph, equivalent to a Category 4 or 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

What has contributed to the strong activity seen in the western Pacific this season? A combination of the right ingredients is the answer. A tropical cyclone needs favorable conditions, such as moisture, warm sea surface temperatures, and lack of wind shear in the upper atmosphere in order to aid development. Based on the activity in the western Pacific, it is likely that those conditions were present much of the season.

The 2013 tropical cyclone season was bittersweet for many; those in the Atlantic were glad for a quiet season while many in the western Pacific were forced to make preparations all season. Our prayers are with those affected by these forces of nature.

Visit Cyclone Center to classify many storms including those past storms that formed in the western Pacific, such as: Supertyphoon Dale (1996), Super Typhoon Herb (1996), Typhoon Faxai (2001), Super Typhoon Mike(1990) and more.

- Davanna G. Saunders is an undergraduate student in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.  She recently joined the Cyclone Center team as a classifier and contributor to our social media.

Super Typhoon Haiyan Threatens Philippines

Today we urge our Cyclone Center users to pause and send positive thoughts to our friends in the Philippines.

Evacuations are underway as Super Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines) makes its way directly towards the country. Intensifying without restraint since Sunday, Haiyan is now a Super typhoon, which is equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale.  Haiyan currently has winds near 170 kt (195 mph).

Super Typhoon Haiyan approaches the Philippines Friday morning with Category-5 winds

Super Typhoon Haiyan approaches the Philippines Friday morning with Category-5 winds

Moving west northwestward, Haiyan is expected to make landfall in the Philippines early Friday morning.  Because of the very warm water temperatures along her path, Haiyan is expected to maintain her status as a super typhoon through landfall.

With this super typhoon comes potentially severe damage.  Haiyan is likely to bring heavy rainfall, severe flooding, damaging strong winds, and mudslides into very heavily populated areas of the Philippines.  The forecasters at the Joint Typhoon Warning Center are encouraging evacuations across the country, especially in the central Philippines, in preparation for the biggest storm of the 2013 season thus far.  She is the fifth super typhoon to form this year in the western Pacific.

- Kelly Dobeck is an undergraduate student in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.  She recently joined the Cyclone Center team as a classifier and contributor to our social media.  

Hurricane Katrina and the Intensifying Coastal Threat

This week Cyclone Center introduces Hurricane Katrina (2005) as one of our featured storms.  This is the 8th anniversary of Katrina’s assault on the northern Gulf of Mexico coast.  The city of New Orleans, despite a massive system of protective levees and pumps, lost over 1500 souls, almost all from drowning when water flooded about 80% of the city.  Since then,  millions of dollars have been spent on the repair and upgrade of the levee system in and around metro New Orleans.  Are they ready for the next one?

“We’ll be absolutely ready for it,” said U.S. Army Corps communications officer Wade Habshey in a recent Discovery News article. “What we have in place now can withstand a Katrina-level storm.”

New Orleans flooding caused by 60 kt. winds, 10-14 ft. storm surge.  Category-5 values: 150 kt winds, 30-35 ft. storm surge.

New Orleans flooding caused by 60 kt. winds, 10-14 ft. storm surge. Category-5 values: 140 kt winds, 25-35 ft. storm surge.

But what exactly is a “Katrina-level” storm?  Winds in downtown New Orleans rarely exceeded minimal hurricane force at the peak of the event.  Storm surge and the strongest winds from the weakening Katrina were focused well to the east in coastal Mississippi.  And yet levees failed, water flooded significant portions of the city, and over 1,500 perished.

An even bigger concern in the long-term are geological changes occurring in the area; coastal portions of Louisiana are sinking into the ocean as climate-forced sea levels continue to rise and land areas sink.  This exacerbates the threat of  hurricanes for a region that experiences one on average every couple of years.  Many climate scientists now believe that hurricanes will be stronger on average in the future as the ocean, which provides the fuel for the storms, continues to warm.

What more should be done?  Government officials exude confidence that the improvements to the levy system will hold up, but we’ve heard that story before.  Claims were made soon after Katrina that the levee system was designed to withstand a Category-3 storm , not something like “Katrina’s strength”.  We’ve already seen that Katrina wasn’t even a hurricane in New Orleans – what happens when a real Category-4 or 5 storm hits the area?  We can only hope that residents will have left, because it’s a very good bet that there will be little dry land to stand on.

- Chris Hennon is part of the Cyclone Center Science Team and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville

New Developments on Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change

One of the goals of the Cyclone Center project is provide a more definitive answer on how tropical cyclones (TCs) have been responding to the dramatic changes that our climate is undergoing.  It is difficult for meteorologists to determine how strong tropical cyclones are getting because we rarely observe them directly, relying primarily on satellite data to give us a decent estimate of the wind speeds.  But as you can imagine, it is very hard to determine the maximum winds in a hurricane when you are in the hurricane itself, let alone flying more than 22,000 miles above it!  Our record of tropical cyclones is by no means nailed down.

http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/images/indicator_figures/sea-surface-temp-figure1-2012.gif

Ocean temperatures have been warming, which provides more energy for tropical cyclones (Image from the EPA)

So people have some differences of opinion on what has been going on in recent years.  Perhaps even more interesting is what will happen in the future.  There are theories that predict the characteristics of tropical cyclones in future years as the rate of ocean and atmospheric warming accelerate.  Most scientists believe cyclones will be more intense as global oceans warm.  There are reasonable disagreements on the number of tropical cyclones forming, since the formation of TCs are sensitive to other things like winds and moisture in the atmosphere.

In the Atlantic Ocean, which of course is of the most interest to the United States and Caribbean nations, the traditional view is that storms will be stronger but less frequent.  A recent study by Kerry Emanuel, a well-respected tropical meteorologist, suggests that we may not be so lucky.  Using the latest high-resolution computer models that simulate TC-like circulations, his results show a 40% increase globally in the strongest TCs (Category-3 or higherand an increase in numbers of TCs in several basins including the North Atlantic.  One has to always be cautious of computer model projections, and it remains to be seen if further evidence comes out to support Emanuel’s conclusions.  But we can accept without doubt that the threat of TCs will remain.

The work of citizen scientists like you on Cyclone Center is already producing results that will help rectify differences in the historical TC record.  As for the future, we’ll just have to wait a little bit on that.

- Chris Hennon is part of the Cyclone Center Science Team and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville

Seasonal Tropical Cyclone Forecasts Are Coming In – But Are They Worth It?

Citizen scientists working on Cyclone Center are working with a few thousand tropical cyclones which have developed since 1978.  Beginning just a few years later, Dr. Bill Gray at Colorado State University (CSU) first began issuing forecasts for the number of tropical cyclones that will develop in the Atlantic Ocean for the upcoming Atlantic season (June 1 – November 30 each year).  Since that time, several other groups, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have also developed similar techniques to predict seasonal activity.  With the official start of the Atlantic season just a couple of weeks away, this year’s predictions are in.

Hurricane Andrew

Hurricane Andrew, a devastating Category-5 storm, occurred during an extremely quiet Atlantic hurricane season.

The CSU forecast, issued in April of this year,  predicts 18 named storms (those achieving at least Tropical Storm strength), 9 hurricanes, and 4 major hurricanes (Saffir-Simpson Category 3 or higher).  This is well above the long-term average for the Atlantic.  The NOAA forecast, which relies on similar parameters to predict activity (e.g. warm ocean temperatures, El Nino phase),  puts the chances of an active season at 70%.  Groups in other parts of the world also produce seasonal forecasts for their own region.  For example, the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia issues a national as well as regional seasonal outlooks.   Recently, other groups such as the United Kingdom Met Office have begun issuing “dynamical” forecasts, which explicitly count tropical cyclone-like features in weather models rather than relating environmental conditions to past activity.

Seasonal forecasts receive quite a bit of publicity, despite questions about their skill and usefulness.    Statistical schemes such as the CSU forecast, rely on past connections between environmental factors and TC activity.  They fail especially in predicting extreme seasons, such as the 1995 or 2005 Atlantic seasons, because the models just don’t know about hyperactive years like that.   Dynamical predictions, which theoretically can predict record breaking years since they do not rely on past seasons, have been shown to have better predictive skill than statistical techniques for seasonal TC prediction.

But even if a model were 100% accurate, would it really make a difference?  The majority of systems that do develop into tropical cyclones do not affect land.  Predictions of landfall are made by several groups but have not shown any skill so far.  For any given location of coastline, the chances of a TC impact in any given year are very small.  So if a homeowner hears that the upcoming season will be active, should any action be taken?  Does it really matter if we’re going to get 12 storms this year or 11?  Remember that some of the most devastating hurricane events in U.S. history, such as Andrew in 1992,, occurred during inactive seasons.  In the end, how do seasonal forecasts help society?

One could argue that any publicity that gets people to assess their readiness is good – but I think that most will not do anything.   Perhaps more effort should be invested in determining how the nature of tropical cyclones will change in our warming world.  Cyclone Center is going to provide researchers with new data that will help determine if and by how much the nature of global tropical cyclone activity has been recently changing.  With stronger tropical cyclones predicted in the Atlantic and other parts of the world – along with rising sea levels – time and energy is better spent developing plans for mitigation for the big ones rather than issuing forecasts with little or no value for coastal residents.

- Chris Hennon is part of the Cyclone Center Science Team and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville

A tale of two storms

The mystical nature of tropical cyclones is that they even form at all. They begin as convective cells (what could be called large thunderstorms).  What appears to be a disorganized grouping of storm cells, can organize, begin spinning and in no time, appear to be a fully organized system. Of course there are very technical descriptions as to how this occurs, but from satellite imagery, it can be amazing to watch. While some of the larger convective (colder) cells can appear to be a separate system, they often are actually part of the original circulation. Here are a couple examples recently brought up on the talk forum at talk.cyclonecenter.org, both of which had two significant landfalls.

1989 Typhoon Gay

Time series of the winds associated with Typhoon Gay

Time series of the winds associated with Typhoon Gay

This system was interesting in that it is a system that began in the Gulf of Thailand – considered the Pacific Ocean – then moved west into the Indian Ocean, eventually making landfall in India as – potentially – a very strong cyclone. Of course I must qualify that statement because of the differences in the best track data. The graph at right shows the best estimates of the storm’s intensity, in maximum sustained wind speed. The system gained strength near day 2, then crossed into the Bay of Bengal and regained strength. At landfall in India, it was likely between 70 and 150 knots, kind of a large range. Some of these differences in intensity are due to the data available to each agency. Another could be in the interpretati0n of the imagery.

Typhoon Gay during development

Typhoon Gay during development

A recent talk post from ibclc2 noted the features in Typhoon Gay during its development in the Gulf of Thailand. The organization of the system is beginning to take shape. The convective cell  near B is close to a banding feature (if you were doing a detailed classification). But it is not, since the region between it and the central part of the system is not warm enough (it needs to be red or warmer, see the field guide for more information). The portion near A appears to be an embedded center. But upon further review, there appears a warm spot just north of the darkest blue colors. It could be the beginnings of an eye, but only time will tell … and it does. In the next few images, that small warm spot becomes an eye just prior to making landfall on the Kra Isthmus. So how would you classify it?  Well it’s likely best left as an embedded center with no banding. While there is the hint of an eye, the primary characteristics of an eye (cold cloud surrounding a warm center in a circular fashion) aren’t complete yet.

2005 Hurricane Dennis

Hurricane Dennis in the Caribbean

Hurricane Dennis in the Caribbean

An image of Dennis recently noted by bretarn showed a large system. Similar to Gay above, the satellite image showed a cold center (A) with a large cold band to the east. The convection near A is showing some circulation, so the center is somewhere below that cold cloud cover. So it is an embedded center. Like the Typhoon above, this is an image just prior to an eye emerging. The next question is what to do with B. It is definitely associated with the system, because it appears to be wrapping around the circulation center near A. The region between A and B is warm, with the warmest color being red. So for a detailed classification, this might be considered a banding feature.

In its own right, Dennis was a very severe system, making landfall in Cuba and in the Gulf on the Florida panhandle. However, its fast movement lessened the impact. It is also less memorable because its Gulf landfall was eclipsed by Hurricane Katrina later in the season. Nonetheless, the name was retired from the North Atlantic hurricane names after the season.

2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season: Signed, Sealed, Delivered

The motto that isn't really a motto

The motto that isn’t really a motto

The United States Postal Service (USPS) has been delivering mail for over 200 years (and recently, losing a lot of money doing it).  Their motto, which apparently is not their official motto at all (just branded all over their NYC postal building) is well known: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”.  Notably missing from this statement  is “hurricane”, “superstorm”, or “storm hybrid” –  Hurricane Sandy showed that it is not possible to deliver mail when a good portion of your city is underwater.

Last Friday the Atlantic tropical season officially ended.  There isn’t a switch that gets turned off that prevents tropical cyclones from developing after November 30; in fact, we have seen storms form into January as recently as 2005.  Nevertheless it is beneficial to designate a tropical cyclone season; it gets people’s attention and does have some scientific merit.  The great majority of storms do form between June 1 and November 30, and storms that do form outside those times rarely affect the U.S.

Of course in other parts of the world the tropical cyclone seasons may be just beginning.  The conditions that allow for their formation in the northern hemisphere late summer/early autumn (warm ocean waters, favorable atmospheric conditions) are just now setting up as the season turns toward summer in the southern hemisphere.  In the tropical western Pacific,  where more  tropical cyclones form than any other basin, conditions are so favorable that storms can form year round.

For Americans, the 2012 tropical cyclone season will be remembered by one name – Sandy.  But it was quite an active season as well, with 19 storms becoming strong enough to earn a name.  This movie shows many of these storms:

Of those 19, only a handful were directly sampled with reconnaissance aircraft; for the rest, as well as storms in every other part of the world, their intensity were estimated primarily from the Dvorak technique.  Cyclone Center citizen scientists use a similar technique to classify historical tropical cyclones – one day Hurricane Sandy will be one of those that users will classify.

We launched the project back in September and it’s had more than 100,000 classifications so far. Cyclone Center is one of the most challenging projects ever built by the Zooniverse, but with each classification you’re contributing to our knowledge of tropical storms.

So far the Cyclone Center community has analyzed more than 500 storms as they raced across the globe. The weather data used on the site comes from 30 years of satellite images and so many memorable storms are being closely inspected by volunteers on the site each day: Katrina (2005), Andrew(1992) and Gilbert (1988) amongst them.

Interestingly, this is the 7th consecutive season that the U.S. was not impacted by a major (Category 3 or higher) hurricane – hard to believe after going through a storm like Sandy which technically may not have even been a hurricane as she came ashore.   As storms continue to become stronger in a warmer climate and societal impacts become more severe, it will be more difficult for mail carriers to make their appointed rounds…assuming mail delivery isn’t cut to 1 day a week by then anyway.

- Chris Hennon is part of the Cyclone Center Science Team and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville - this blog is part of the 2012 Zooniverse Advent Calendar.

cyclonecenter.org

Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change – Checkmate?

During election season I will occasionally tune in to a few of the news networks to get my 10 minute dose of partisan noise.  As Hurricane Sandy churned in the Atlantic and aimed herself at the New Jersey coast, I happened to come across a show that featured an economist and a political analyst discussing the nuances of tropical cyclones and climate change.  I don’t recall exactly what was said, but it went something like this:

Economist: Sandy is huge!  Why isn’t anyone talking about climate change?

Analyst [very eager to break in to the conversation]: “Yes!  Look at Sandy – an ‘S’ storm!  When was the last time we’ve had an ‘S’ storm in the Atlantic?  Usually we only make it to the H’s, or I’s, or K’s.  Look at 1992 – the ‘A’ storm that year didn’t form until mid-August!”

Now I’m sure both of these gentlemen are very bright people and I have a lot of respect for the analyst (when he talks about politics), but having them discuss hurricanes and climate is like me commentating on a grandmaster chess match – I know how the pieces move but that’s only 10% of the battle.

There was nothing particularly unusual about Sandy in the beginning – we have seen plenty of hurricanes form in the deep tropics in October, and she moved and behaved in a pretty typical fashion.  Nor has there been anything outright weird about the 2012 hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean.   Before the season, every documented seasonal forecast of the number of named storms was above the long-term average, and the season has played out accordingly (even exceeding expectations in many cases).

But a season is usually remembered by one or two storms, and Sandy has made 2012 quite historic.  Weather forecast models accurately predicted days in advance that Sandy would have a major impact on the northeast United States.  And judging by the images and stories coming out of New Jersey, New York, and surrounding states, Sandy lived up to expectations.

As with any major storm or weather event, the inevitable question is asked: “Did climate change cause/enhance this?”  Although a definitive answer is elusive (we don’t have a big enough laboratory to create a “warming free” experiment), we can make a reasonable assessment about some of the factors that probably played a role.

Individual storms such as Sandy respond to the instantaneous ocean and atmosphere environment they find themselves in – or in a way, weather.  Climate is the palette, not the paint; it sets the scene for the actors to do their part.  So what was Sandy’s “scene”?

We know that the world’s oceans are warming – warm water means more energy is available for the hurricane.  We know that sea levels are rising, leading to larger hurricane storm surges.  And we know that coastal development continues to expose millions of people to storms like Sandy.

Most climate scientists believe that we are in for stronger hurricanes in a warmer world and that we are already seeing a move toward this new era.  But our data are just not good enough to know for sure if tropical cyclones have already been becoming stronger.  Almost all tropical cyclones, even in recent years, are not measured directly; and even when they are, we can only measure small samples of these vast storms at any one time.  This is a big reason why there are conflicting accounts on recent tropical cyclone trends.

Cyclone Center was created to help resolve these questions.  By having the public analyze 30+ years of tropical cyclone images, we will provide meteorologists with new data that can be used to reconcile differences in individual storms, as well as long-term trends.

And by the way, the last year with an ‘S’ storm in the Atlantic was 2011.  And that ‘A’ storm in August of 1992, one of only six named storms that year?  Hurricane Andrew, a category-5 storm that devastated South Florida.  To those residents affected by Andrew and Sandy, climate change is a secondary concern.

- Chris Hennon is part of the Cyclone Center Science Team and Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville

cyclonecenter.org

Unmasking Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy and her merger with a strong autumn storm system are making history along the U.S. eastern seaboard.  But for a time earlier in her life, Sandy provided a bit of mystery to forecasters – showing why what you see in a satellite picture is not always what you get at the ground.

Shown below are three infrared images of Sandy as she was approaching Cuba from October 24-25.

Hurricane Sandy

7-hour sequence of Hurricane Sandy between Jamaica and Cuba

In the absence of observations, meteorologists perform the Dvorak technique to determine the maximum wind strength, or intensity; Cyclone Center uses a modified version of this technique to analyze historical tropical cyclones. The expert who put these images together said that he would assign a minimum intensity of 115 kt. for all three of these times.   That would have made Sandy a Category-4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, capable of catastrophic damage.  An automated Dvorak technique produced a similar intensity, and official intensity estimates from the U.S. National Hurricane Center and the U.S. Satellite Analysis Branch were also over 100 kt.

That may have been the end of the story if it were not for one key piece of additional information – data from “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft that were sampling the storm at the same times these images were taken.  They determined that the surface winds were about 75-80 kt, at least 20 kt. lower than the Dvorak estimates.  So what’s going on here?

Hurricane Sandy (Oct. 28, 2012)

Hurricane Sandy off the coast of North Carolina on the morning of October 28, 2012.

This instance illustrates some of the challenges that forecasters and analysts have when trying to determine the strongest winds in a tropical cyclone.  In cases where a tropical cyclone intensifies rapidly, as here, the cloud pattern typically leads the surface wind increase.  So an analyst using the Dvorak technique may get an instantaneous wind value that may be much higher than the actual surface wind speed (which hasn’t had time to increase yet).  Because of this, the Dvorak technique takes into account the storm’s recent intensity and does not allow storm to “jump” too high from one time to another.

Even when we have aircraft data, it is impossible for 1 or 2 planes to sample the entire storm.  So it is quite likely that the point in the eyewall with the maximum winds does not get observed, especially in cases when the wind field is changing rapidly.

In Sandy’s case – a dangerous tropical cyclone close to populated areas – observations from inside the storm have provided forecasters with a pretty good idea about the wind speeds.  But  imagine a storm like Sandy swirling out in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of kilometers from civilization, with only satellite pictures and data available for estimating her strength.  It is pretty easy to see how we don’t always get the intensity right.  In fact, we don’t even know what the “right” intensity is!  But from a scientific perspective, these storms are just as important as the ones that ravage our coastlines.  By having an accurate account of their strength, we may, for instance, be able to determine how tropical cyclones worldwide have been reacting to our changing climate.

And that is the whole point of Cyclone Center – to have all of you provide us with your analysis of storms, so that we can determine not only the “best” intensity, but also get an idea about how certain we can be about it. For now, prepare for a pretty big hurricane, stock up on non-perishables and green coffee and stay safe!

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