Hurricane Forecasting: Predicting the Unpredictable

We know hurricane forecasts are improving. Track errors have been sliced in half over the past 15 years, but it's still impossible to expect absolute perfection.

Charlie Dailey, a Tallahassee resident, says, "Well, I know there's going to be some margin of error in the computer projection, but when it gets closer to land, it's going to be very close."

Computer models are critical tools that meteorologists use to predict a hurricane's path, but why can't they always get it right?

Bob Hart, FSU Professor of Meteorology, says, "The models that we use are approximations to the real atmosphere. They cannot capture everything that goes on in the atmosphere, so they have to make some approximations about what we know about hurricanes specifically."

And forecasters do not know everything about these large and dangerous storms. Wilma slowed to a snail's pace in Mexico because of opposing forces in our atmosphere that cannot be modeled precisely.

Paul Duval, Meteorologist in Charge for the National Weather Service, says, "The result was that with weak differences in these various forces, the different models respond differently to that and some predict that one force or another will become the dominant one and move the storm in one direction or another."

All of these uncertainties have left some to wonder: why can we fly men to outer space, but not perfectly predict hurricanes on this planet?

Paul Duval says, "Simple answer is that the atmosphere is extremely complex."

That's all the more reason to monitor forecasts and warnings on a regular basis.

Wilma's track prediction was quite good, but the storm arrived several days later than originally predicted. Research is underway in an attempt to better understand mechanisms that steer hurricanes.