Special Report: Hurricane Season 2005, Part III

Their sometimes unpredictable paths and strengths have stumped forecasters. Now, local researchers have developed the most accurate computer model in the world.

Hurricanes can take unexpected turns and intensify with the drop of a hat. We've all seen the forecast cone of uncertainty, but what is it?

Paul Duval, meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service, says, "That cone of uncertainty is that area on either side of the forecast track which reflects the possibility the average error could occur."

Errors in hurricane forecasting are bound to occur. The science of meteorology is not a perfect one, but researchers at Florida State University take computer models from around the world and make them a whole lot better. This method is called the "superensemble.”

Dr. T.N. Krishnamurti, a meteorology professor at FSU, says, "Instead of providing a consensus by just looking at those and having some experience with those, we have the computer do the consensus, so that's what the 'superensemble' is."

Krishnamurti says that their 'superensemble' computer tries to remove errors and biases in other computer models. This method is providing stunningly good results.

Brian Mackey, a research assistant, says, "We have come out the best. Last year was the first time we gave the hurricane center a five-day forecast, so they had fully verified it and we gave it to them four times per day so they were able to completely verify last year that we were on top."

Mackey says their 'superensemble' was so good last year that it even predicted hurricane paths more accurately than the human forecasters at the National Hurricane Center. It's no wonder that the hurricane center wants their computer model faster this year.

Brian Mackey says, "They are very interested in what we do and they do receive our forecasts. Last year, it was slightly delayed from what they would like to see by about 20 minutes, so we are working on that this year and give it to them in a more timely fashion."

Now the big challenge for the researchers at FSU is to improve the intensity forecasts, which are still particularly erroneous, but Krishnamurti says as the group of computer models from around the world that go into making his 'superensemble' improve, the entire forecast will continually get better and better.

Prof. Krishnamurti says, "That's called the shampoo commercial. If you look good, then we look good, so if you keep improving, then we keep improving."

Their predictions combined with decisions of emergency officials could well save lives.