Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanks for Nothing

The hurricane season officially ends this coming Friday. And in spite of the dire predictions of an “extremely active” season, we got a lot less than what was forecast, and here in South Florida we didn’t get anything. Not that I mind, but we’re actually in drought conditions and the hurricanes, for all their destruction, do help with replenishing the water supply.

So why did the forecasters miss the mark anyway?

It’s been a stormy few years for William Gray, Philip Klotzbach and other scientists who predict total hurricane activity before each season begins, which raises fundamental questions as the 2007 season draws to an end on Friday:

Why do they bother? And given the errors — which can undermine faith in the entire hurricane warning system — are these full-season forecasts doing more harm than good?

“The seasonal hurricane forecasters certainly have a lot of explaining to do,” said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center.

“The last couple of years have humbled the seasonal hurricane forecasters and pointed out that we have a lot more to learn before we can do accurate seasonal forecasts,’ he said.


Even mid-season corrections issued by both teams in August — somewhat akin to changing your prediction about a baseball game during the fifth inning — proved wrong.

Their pre-season predictions in 2005 and 2006 were even worse.

The teams defend their forecasts, saying they are based on the best science available, were closer to the mark in prior years and serve an important public service.

“The seasonal forecasts are quite good,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster. “Last year, we over-predicted and this year we over-predicted, but our track record, I think, is excellent.”

Klotzbach, who now is the lead forecaster of the Colorado State team created more than two decades ago, said long-range predictions satisfy the public’s “inherent curiosity.”

Not to mention the fact that they boost sales of plywood, generators, bottled water, granola bars, and blue tarps.

Frankly, I’d rather they overpredicted than under. It keeps you prepared for the worst, and if nothing happens, you have a cupboard full of Quaker birdseed bars for a quick snack.