The Embarrassing Hurricane Season of '06:
Should We be Making Seasonal Hurricane Forecasts?
(November 6, 2006) After a very busy 2004 hurricane season, and the record breaking 2005 season,
it was widely assumed by long-range forecasters that 2006 would be a bad hurricane season as well.
But Mother Nature had other plans.
The exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures we experienced in 2005 disappeared. Increasing wind shear,
possibly due to a building El Nino, started blowing the tops off of any systems that might
have strengthened into tropical cyclones.
And now, as we approach the end of the hurricane season, we are below even an average season,
with only 9 named storms, when there are usually 10 by this date.
Some coastal residents are angry. Florida radio talk shows have had irate callers complain
about the blown seasonal forecast, as well as warnings of a potential Category 2 hurricane that
ended up providing little more than a blustery day.
My oldest sister and her husband have just built a house in North Carolina to escape to when
their Florida Keys home is threatened by the approach of hurricane season. Now she is hopping mad, too.
Even though she is a science-savvy person who recognizes the limits of weather forecasting,
my sister believed the long range forecasts of a 2006 hurricane season that was supposed to be
well above normal. She and her husband left Florida for North Carolina when they didn't need to.
This begs the question: Should any forecaster that values their reputation be making long range
forecasts for the upcoming hurricane season? Oh, sure, in a freedom-loving country like ours,
people can forecast whatever they want to. But when the reputation of our esteemed hurricane
experts is so badly damaged, does it do any good to keep making forecasts that have,
historically speaking, so little skill?
The media is partly to blame for the problem. If a long-range hurricane forecaster announces
that a season is expected to be above normal, but also cautions the reporter that these types of
forecasts have little skill, more often than not the reporter won't complicate the story
with such wishy-washy details. In the never ending quest for higher ratings, many TV on-camera meteorologists play up the threats
and play down the uncertainties.
The current 2006 season could well be the case of "crying wolf" that leads to many people
simply ignoring seasonal forecasts. Will the forecaster be believed in some future year when
all of the indicators are overwhelmingly pointing to a disastrous season?
And what happens when a season is forecast to be light in activity, and then a monster
like Hurricane Andrew roars ashore, like in 1992? Does it make sense for the public to
make any important decisions based upon a science that is so uncertain?
All we can do is ask the questions. At a minimum, the public needs to know that seasonal
forecasts have more entertainment value than accuracy. Yes, the Hurricane Center has all the probability information
included in their seasonal forecasts. But people either do not understand those probabilities,
or they tend to ignore them.
Every year should be considered to be a potentially busy season. Major
hurricanes can form in both light and active seasons, and people should not be taking undue risks
based upon a 60% chance of a below normal season.
And a word of caution about the current round of global warming hysteria: Even if global warming
is causing some storms to be stronger than normal, Category 5 hurricanes have always existed
and always will. Coastal residents should not be distracted from the reality of the yearly
threat of major hurricanes by some theory that, in the end, has relatively little to do with
the natural threat these storms pose to coastal residents.