At 11 o’clock on the night of Sept. 29, the National Hurricane Center in Miami posted an updated prediction for Hurricane Matthew. Using the latest data from a reconnaissance aircraft, the center’s computerized models led meteorologists there to conclude, in a post on the center’s website, that “only a slight strengthening is forecast during the next 12 to 24 hours.” Their prediction proved to be astonishingly amiss: The following day, Matthew exploded from a Category 1 into a Category 5 hurricane, with winds gusting to 160 miles per hour, strong enough to flatten even the sturdiest homes.
This was hardly the first time that United States government forecasters significantly underestimated a storm’s potential. Last year, 24 hours before Patricia reached Mexico’s Pacific Coast, it unexpectedly mushroomed from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane, its winds topping 215 miles per hour. Luckily, Patricia — officially the strongest hurricane on record in the Western Hemisphere — made landfall over a sparsely populated region. Matthew behaved similarly, its intensification also unforeseen and sudden, occurring just two days before it overwhelmed Haiti. Residents there had little time to flee, and the death toll exceeded 1,000. (More than 30 died in the United States.) The failure to make timely, accurate predictions about these storms would have had far deadlier consequences had they made landfall near a major metropolitan area. In South Florida, for example — where the initial forecasts for a storm of modest size would not have prompted hurricane-weary residents to evacuate — Matthew’s rapid increase in power could have pinned down more than six million people in the region.
It’s a situation that deeply troubles Cliff Mass, a meteorologist and professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. As he does after every major weather event, Mass deconstructed the bungled predictions for Matthew and Patricia on his popular website, “Cliff Mass Weather Blog,” which he started in 2008. He called Patricia a “poster child, perhaps the worst case in a while, of a major problem for meteorologists,” and in response to Matthew he posted a graph that showed how the National Hurricane Center’s computer-forecasting model at one point was off by more than 325 nautical miles in predicting the storm’s westward course.
Mass, who is 64, has become the most widely recognized critic of weather forecasting in the United States — and specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the National Weather Service and its underling agencies, including the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, where the nation’s weather models are run. Mass argues that these models are significantly flawed in comparison with commercial and European alternatives. American forecasting also does poorly at data assimilation, the process of integrating information about atmospheric conditions into modeling programs; in the meantime, a lack of available computing power precludes the use of more advanced systems already operating at places like the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, based in Reading, England. And there are persistent management challenges, perhaps best represented by the legions of NOAA scientists whose innovations remain stranded in research labs and out of the hands of the National Weather Service operational forecasters who make the day-to-day predictions in 122 regional offices around the country.
A RESPONSE FROM RECENTLY RETIRED NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE METEROLOGIST, JOE RAMEY
I’ll write a few thoughts here before I forget them.
First, Mr. Behar doesn’t understand the NWS at a very fundamental level. The NWS doesn’t issue “severe thunderstorm alerts” but does issue severe thunderstorm warnings. There is only one NWS union not “unions.” That is just a couple of glaring points.
Second, Mr. Behar doesn’t know meteorology. The strong intensification of hurricanes is still not well understood; that’s the state of the science. There are no models, European or otherwise, that capture that well. Also in the absence of large scale forcing, no model can forecast where “pop-up” thunderstorms will occur 1-2 hours in advance. Finally, the European model misses plenty of forecasts. It does do better than the American GFS overall, but it’s not the perfect solution.
I must say this article seems like a hit job. It is easy to cherry-pick missed forecasts. Dr. Mass sounds especially provocative, standing in front of a class of college freshman and bashing the NWS.
There are a few good points. Big increases in computing power would probably pay for itself in Decision Support Services (DSS is the new-ish mantra in the NWS, how do we (I mean they!) help folks make better decisions based on weather impacts). From chaos theory, ensemble forecasts make a lot of sense and offer a new level of accuracy. The NWS is using ensembles, more at the synoptic level, but not down to the local level, yet.
Big computers and modeling to the fine scale cost money: federal money assigned by Congress. We know what that means with a dysfunctional legislative branch, not one red cent from this Congress for many years. In fact, the NWS is working under funding cuts and doing the best they can.
There are more details. But I think this kind of provocative journalism must be taken with a grain of salt.
All the Best,