Irene Lived Up to Expectations Despite Critics... and More on The Potential SD Heat Wave
by Cody Matz
August 29, 2011 8:41 PM
Hurricane Irene has come and gone but the clean up continues as the storm ended up being the one that many feared it would be. But now the critics look back and say that this storm wasn’t as bad as it was forecasted to be and the media and the National Weather Service “Hyped” this storm too much. First off, hindsight is always 20/20 but let me give you some numbers that might have you thinking otherwise; 37 people are now confirmed dead in 10 different states, 5 million people are still without power and it could be out for weeks, and 13 states received more then 5 inches of rain with totals topping 15 inches in some areas, keeping in mind that many of these same areas had already experienced their wettest month on record before Irene showed up. Not enough??
Well if those numbers don’t impress you or change your mind, how about I let you in on a little secret. Weather forecasting is a lot like “practicing medicine” as a doctor. If you get an illness, you can go to five different doctors and get five different diagnoses. That’s because every opinion is going to be different. Not to mention, patients may leave out some key details that the doctor doesn’t know. Well weather is somewhat similar. There are dozens of forecasting models all of which are saying something a little different and all likely missing some variables considering there are trillions of variables in the atmosphere. So, each ends up with a different result. That’s where the Meteorologists come in, in this case the National Hurricane Center. They evaluate all of these possibilities and try to make the best possible forecast based on their experience, knowledge, training, and data available. Now, you should be happy to know that the science of Meteorology continues to improve and likely will in the future, but just like doctors, we can be and will be a little off from time to time. Well, here is an article written by two science writers from the Associated Press in which they just might change your mind on how “over hyped” and “poorly forecasted” this storm really was, especially in the field of Meteorology. In fact, I don’t think I could have said it any better myself. (The pictures on the right are radar estimated rainfall from Hurricane Irene and actual totals measured)
“The path taken by Hurricane Irene was no mystery to forecasters. They knew where it was going. But what it would do when it got there was another matter.
Predicting a storm's strength still baffles meteorologists. Every giant step in figuring out the path highlights how little progress they've made on another crucial question: How strong?
Irene made landfall Saturday morning at Cape Lookout, N.C. — a bull's-eye in the field of weather forecasts.
It hit where forecasters said it would and followed the track they had been warning about for days.
"People see that and assume we can predict everything," National Hurricane Center senior forecaster Richard Pasch said.
But when Irene struck, the storm did not stick with the forecast's predicted major hurricane strength winds.
"It's frustrating when people take our forecasts verbatim and say, 'This is where it's going to be at this time and this is how strong it's going to be,'" Pasch said. "Because even though the track is good it's not certain."
But it's getting there.
By Monday night, five days before Irene first hit the East Coast, the hurricane center figured the storm would come ashore around the North Carolina-South Carolina border.
By Tuesday night, they predicted it would rake the coast. And on Friday morning — 24 hours before landfall — they had the storm's next day location to within 10 miles or so.
Twenty years ago, 24-hour forecasts were lucky if they got it right within 100 miles and the average 36-hour forecast within 146 miles. With Irene, that was about the accuracy of the five-day forecast.
"This is a gold medal forecast," retired hurricane center director Max Mayfield said. "I don't think there's any doubt: I think they saved lives."
The current director, Bill Read, tried not to sound boastful: "In the big picture of things, it looks like it panned out very well."
There are two reasons for the steady improvement in forecasts: Better computer models and better data to go into those models.
With Irene, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spent extra money with jet flights and weather balloons across the country to get far more data than usual and it paid off in even better forecasts, Mayfield said.
Irene also was the type of storm that chugs off of Africa that is pretty simple to forecast accurately, said Georgia Tech meteorology professor Judith Curry, who makes private forecasts for energy interests with her firm Climate Forecast Applications Network.
Storms in the Gulf of Mexico are much more fickle, with weaker and less obvious steering currents. In 1985, Hurricane Elena caused evacuation chaos as it threatened to hit western Florida twice, but never did so.
On the negative side, the forecast after Irene hit the Bahamas had it staying as a Category 3 and possibly increasing to a Category 4.
But it weakened and hit as a Category 1 storm and stayed that way up the coast until it faded into a tropical storm by the time it reached New York City. It lost strength as it moved north over land and cooler water.
Read said they will go back and figure out what happened, but noted they have made huge strides in projecting where a hurricane will hit.
n past storms, they would have issued warnings for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, but there were no evacuations there for Irene.
"We're not completely sure how the interplay of various features is causing the strength of a storm to change," Read said.
One theory is that a storm's strength is dependent on the storm's inner core.
'Gap in the science'
Irene never had a classic, fully formed eye wall — even going through the Bahamas as a Category 3.
"Why it did that, we don't know," Read said. "That's a gap in the science."
Georgia Tech's Curry said one of the main problems is that the giant global computer models that do so well forecasting the track require large scale data.
The keys to intensity changes are usually too small for big computer models, she said.
Mayfield says what's needed is better real-time, small-scale information, like Doppler radar.
NOAA used old propeller planes to take Doppler radar data inside Irene, but the information will be used to design better intensity forecasts in the future, he said.
And when it comes to damage from Irene, the problem wasn't wind strength, but storm surge and flooding, which was the message from forecasters all week long.
Given that the accuracy of forecasting intensity has not changed much at all in 20 years, Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, said he thought the strength forecast was pretty good.”
Hopefully that gives you a little insight into weather forecasting and the fact that we are improving, but unfortunately we have a long ways to go till we are perfect.
But enough about Irene, lets focus now on our weather. With showers expected Monday night and Tuesday, it may feel a bit like summer is coming to an end. But look twice because by Wednesday we will be in the grips of a ridge and that spells MUCH WARMER weather ahead. With the jet stream retreating back into Canada, it will allow warm air to stream northward into the Upper Midwest. It will be reasonably short-lived, but it just proves that the hot weather isn’t over quite yet. In fact, we can get 90’s all the way into early October. Now, Monday evening 850mb temperatures (5000 feet above the surface) are reasonably mild noted by the picture below with the darker yellows and oranges over SD.
But by Wednesday, that ridge really builds in bringing with it warmer weather. Check out the 850mb temps for both Wednesday and Thursday.
Highs will likely be climbing into the 90’s in a lot of locations for one or both of those days, but the pleasant weather will return quickly, already back into the area on Friday.