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Looking Farther Into the Future

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It’s not too often that most of us get to gaze into a crystal ball and actually see the future—but occasionally it works. What will we see? If all goes well, a message that tells us when to get out of the way.

Crystal balls for divining the future, usually some form of quartz, were used during China’s Qing Dynasty and in ancient Egypt. Today we have something a little less romantic but tremendously more accurate: microwave sounders in a low-orbiting satellite, which can measure moisture and temperature in the atmosphere, unimpeded by clouds.

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The National Hurricane Center, using data from a NOAA satellite launched last November, is exploring the possibility of using these data to predict the path of a hurricane seven days out, rather than the five days of current forecasts. Two days might not seem like a big change, but if you’re an emergency manager trying to plan where evacuations might be needed or a FEMA official allocating limited resources, that extra time is critical.

Because the seven-day forecasts are still in the experimental stage, this information won’t be released to the public just yet; officials will use the forecasts and analyze their accuracy for the next couple of years before making them a regular part of the public warning system. This is the same procedure they followed for five-day forecasts, which were possible as early as 2001 but not publicly released until 2003.

But as this article notes, the precedent for longer forecasts is already there: “Federal meteorologists started issuing 24-hour hurricane forecasts in 1954, two-day forecasts in 1961, and three-day forecasts in 1964.”

And the forecasts are getting more accurate. According to one NHC official, the five-day forecasts during the last hurricane season were as accurate as the two-day forecasts were 20 years ago. That’s important for many reasons, not least because inaccurate predictions—and evacuation orders in places that turn out not to be in the storm’s path at all—lead to “evacuation fatigue” and a failure to move when it really counts.

Last fall, a Stormwater magazine article reported on an updated warning system from the National Weather Service, which included new storm surge watches and warnings to be issued 48 and 36 hours, respectively, before the predicted onset of a hurricane. SW_bug_web

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