Forecasters look to past to predict future hurricane seasons

Researchers say prediction models continue to improve

ORLANDO, Fla. – They certainly aren’t words of comfort, but you’ve likely heard them before: “Forecasters are predicting above-average activity this hurricane season.”

While these predictions may seem ominous and likely carry tones of anxiety, they also carry the opportunity for Floridians to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

But how do forecasters make predictions about what a hurricane season may look like before the first storm even hits? According to Dr. Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University and member of the Tropical Meteorology Project, looking to past hurricane seasons helps provide a look into the future.

After 37 years of cataloging hurricanes and looking at the conditions surrounding them, Klotzbach and his fellow researchers at CSU have been able to come up with a way to predict hurricane season outcomes based on past seasons. The team uses what they call “analog years,” which are basically the years researchers look back upon that have similar concurrent weather conditions to what a region may experience at any given time.

“We look primarily ahead at what we expect we’re going to see during the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, and then we look for years that had similar overall large-scale conditions,” Klotzbach said. “So that means overall, the tropics look fairly similar. It doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to see, say storms tracking the exact same way that they tracked in those years because storm tracks are governed a lot more by day-to-day weather. Currently, our analogs are 1960, 1966, 1980, 1996 and 2008.”

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Those are the analog years Klotzbach listed while discussing predictions for the 2020 season. Hurricane seasons in 1960 and 2008 were particularly brutal for Central Florida. The season in 1960 brought Hurricane Donna and the eye of the storm that came right over downtown Orlando. In 2008, Hurricane Fay became the first storm in recorded history to make landfall in Florida four times after zigzagging between water and land.

So where do predictions stand for the 2020 hurricane season?

“We have warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures across most of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic,” Klotzbach said. “And what that tends to do is it basically creates, provides more fuel for developing tropical cyclones. But it also generates an atmosphere generally characterized by lower pressure in a more unstable atmosphere, which helps to favor the building blocks of hurricanes or deep thunderstorms.”

[RELATED: Why does it seem forecasters always predict an above-average hurricane season?]

While it can be difficult to predict exactly how devastating a hurricane will be, Klotzbach said that there are averages that meteorologists follow when looking at weather patterns as they develop.

“The long-term average is about a 50/50 chance in any year that a major (hurricane) makes U.S. landfall -- that’s in the continental US,” Klotzbach said. “This year, the probability is about 70% because again, we’re forecasting an above-normal season. For the U.S. East Coast, including the Florida Peninsula, this year our forecast is 45%.”

Meteorologists must also be wary of the information they forecast as some periods of hurricane season tend to be busier than others.

“Over the course of the peak months of the season -- which are August through October -- which is about 90% of all your major hurricane activity occurs during that three-month period, we issue two-week forecasts,” Klotzbach said. “So we try to predict the upcoming two weeks, because you can have an active season with quieter periods or you can have a quiet season that has an active period. So we’re trying to distinguish during the season when we expect to see more or less activity.”

As a small patch of sun amidst the clouds, Klotzbach said hurricane prediction models are getting better as science progresses, although you shouldn’t expect your love-hate relationship with the famed “spaghetti models” to end anytime soon.

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“So one thing we have now that (we) didn’t have in the early 80s was climate models and these models certainly aren’t perfect. But what you can do is, you can use these climate models to forecast the large-scale atmosphere ocean environment over, say, a three-month period,” Klotzbach said. “Now, a model is not going to give you a perfect forecast for the weather, you know, nine weeks from now, but it can give you an overall reasonable forecast for, say, weather patterns over a month or over a season. So we’re using that model to then forecast kind of what the large-scale environment’s going to look like. And then use the relationships that we know, work with that environment to then forecast the season.”

The Atlantic hurricane season runs June 1 through Nov. 30.

Regardless of forecasters predictions, Floridians should always be prepared for anything hurricane season might bring. Get everything you need to prepare for storm season, including a county-by-county breakdown of resources, at ClickOrlando.com/Hurricane.

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