By Frank Bentayou

For the better part of a century, a beneficial alliance has linked the U.S. scientific enterprises that track and study tropical storms and extreme weather and the Caribbean nations that suffer most from their wind and flooding. Now the U.S. Weather Service is promising to “revolutionize” its forecasting ability with some $8 billion worth of technology upgrades.

The aim, according to meteorologists and scientists, is to make this partnership a world model for storm research and prediction to save lives and resources and reduce the suffering that can happen during the six months of hurricane season each year.

Susan Buchanan, acting director of the U.S. National Weather Service public affairs office, says forecasting has improved dramatically from when its basic information was: There’s a storm forming, it’s pretty big, and it’s heading our way.

“There used to be lots of surprises,” Buchanan said. “We know more now. And we’ve gotten a lot better with our predictions.”

The main sources of information about storm generation and their strength and paths through southern seas are the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its agencies and partners, including the National Weather Service and the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.

As part of the multiyear phase-in, investment in technology, including almost $45 million more in computer and software power in 2016 alone, and a more than $7 billion investment in satellites, storm forecasting is on the verge of even greater improvement, scientists say.
NASA will launch a new generation of satellites in October from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“If the images we look at today are like Super-8 film clips,” a U.S. government public information officer said, “in a year they will be more like IMAX displays.”

From this investment, NOAA and other weather agencies are likely to get dramatically better at observing and interpreting the intricate birthing process huge weather systems undergo, and then track them more precisely, better predict their intensity and disseminate all that information to trade routes in the sea, the commercial and private aviation industries and targeted points of landfall with more accuracy than ever before.

Caribbean and other regional states provide the raw material – in the form of millions of observations about the sea and atmosphere – that the U.S. agencies can turn into reliable predictions.

Observation and data processing stations dot the Caribbean, monitoring wind direction and speed, time and intensity of sunlight, water and air temperature, atmospheric pressure and moisture. A key station among them is the Kearney Gomez Doppler Weather Radar installation in Grand Cayman’s East End.

Image: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Image: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Super new satellites and supercomputers

NOAA’s super-mapping systems and greater, faster computer capacity are contributing to the improved forecasting process, Buchanan said.

“ … The new GOES-R [geo-synchronous] weather satellites will provide fresh images of a hurricane every 30 seconds, much faster than current satellites. Image generation will be four times faster,” she said, noting that the data-gathering process will be far richer, leading to a more complex understanding of storms.

NOAA will harvest endless data points from the region where storms begin, feed them to its supercomputers and then quickly distribute useful predictions back to its international partners.

“We’re going to be able to provide this information to local emergency operations in the path of the storm faster than in the past, and that leaves more lead time for emergency preparedness,” including dealing with infrastructure needs, getting food and water to where they will be needed and making decisions about evacuation, she said.

Cayman Islands National Weather Service Director General John Tibbetts said his experience with forecast information from the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami is that “there has been a somewhat steady improvement in weather models … to accurately predict location and strength of any active storm or hurricane.”

But new features scheduled for 2016 should ratchet performance even higher in years to come. Philip Klotzbach, storm researcher at Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project, has been involved for years with annual Atlantic and Caribbean storm forecasts released each June.

“The forecasts have gotten better year after year,” he said. “That’s mostly because of improvements in modeling quality, the ability to know what the large-scale atmospheric conditions are. We have so many more observations than we used to. They’re on ships, in ground stations and, of course, on satellites.”

Years of study have yielded essential insights into weather and storm patterns including that in seasons when El Niño, a warm-water pattern in the Pacific Ocean, is active, Atlantic hurricanes tend to develop less fiercely than during times when no El Niño is detected. That circumstance was at play in 2014 and 2015, when relatively fewer big storms came to bear in the Tropics.

Klotzbach’s 2016 forecast showed a year in transition. The warm El Niño waters are less a factor this season, so hurricanes have a somewhat higher probability of gaining strength than in the recent past.

“The supercomputers NOAA now employs and advanced modeling software are able to create a far clearer picture than ever before out of the millions of observations around the globe,” Klotzbach says.

“You’ll be able to see the difference on your own home computer screen,” he said. “You know how those video loops of hurricane activity seem kind of jumpy? Once we troubleshoot everything over a month or two, you’ll see the rotations in much higher resolution.”

The smoother graphics also mean more data for Klotzbach and his colleagues to study more information about the forces hurricanes bring to bear against the existing forces in the atmosphere. And that means a chance of much greater clarity about whether a storm is strengthening or weakening, preparing to slide to the east or barrel north. “Our accuracy is going to improve a lot,” he said.

Part of Klotzbach’s certainty comes from his still brief experience with two new supercomputers NOAA put in operation in January. The promise is they will provide the most sophisticated analyses of weather conditions four times faster than the systems they replace. One unit, which NOAA refers to as Luna, is in Reston, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.; the other, called Surge, is in Orlando, Florida.

Part of the job of the $44.5 million computer upgrade is to improve hurricane tracking, but they also are equipped to monitor both winter storms and extreme thunderstorms. In addition, they will analyze the water-carrying capacity of soil and help scientists better understand regional drought and flooding.

Tibbetts said the improvements “will bring better personal as well as community decisions, which can be the difference between life and death during a hurricane.”

NOAA’s aim is for forecasting to become 50 percent more accurate by 2021. The first five years have yielded 20 percent better accuracy, according to administrators.

The launch of the much-improved GOES-R series of satellites – aimed solely at the Western Hemisphere – is scheduled for mid-October. Scientists like Klotzbach foresee a spike in accuracy performance once the new technology gets fully integrated into weather agencies’ systems.

Hurricane Ivan left a path of destruction on Grand Cayman in 2004. New state-of-the-art technology is aimed at vastly improving forecasting storms in the Caribbean region and the entire Western Hemisphere.
Hurricane Ivan left a path of destruction on Grand Cayman in 2004. New state-of-the-art technology is aimed at vastly improving forecasting storms in the Caribbean region and the entire Western Hemisphere.

Cayman Islands storm vulnerability, a website that since 1997 has ranked cities and islands affected most by tropical storms and hurricanes, lists the Cayman Islands as the fourth most often hit or grazed in the Atlantic basin. The site tracks storm strikes back to 1871 and notes that over those 145 years, Cayman has been a target every 1.69 years. It also calls Cayman “the most affected area in the Caribbean Sea.” (The No. 1 Hurricane City, though, is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, struck every 1.37 years.)

On the other hand, the website also noted that the Cayman Islands had a 13-year reprieve from big storms when it did not get a single landfall between 1955 and 1969. That ended a generation later, in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan swept past to the south with 155 mph winds and a storm surge of 8 to 10 feet. The islands sustained $1.8 billion in damage and counted two deaths.

Tibbetts has noted that there’s no controlling the birth of tropical storms or any way to guide them to remote corners of the sea once they appear. But the as the region’s vulnerable islands must prepare to protect residents and visitors however they can, an extra day or two or even a few hours’ cushion, could be a game-changer in the path of a killer storm.