Another hurricane scale? Improve Saffir-Simpson first, meteorologists say

AccuWeather introduces RealImpact scale for hurricanes

By Candace Campos - Meteorologist, Emilee Speck - Digital journalist
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Flooded homes near Lake Houston after Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 30, 2017.

ORLANDO, Fla. - A private weather media company revealed this week that it has developed its own hurricane prediction scale. AccuWeather representatives say the scale makes up for impacts the widely used Saffir-Simpson scale misses however some meteorologists say it could cause confusion.

AccuWeather introduced the RealImpact Scale for Hurricanes on Thursday at the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting. According to a news release, the new six-point scale is based on a range of factors for classifying tropical storms and hurricanes, including flooding rain, high winds, storm surge, total damage and economic impact.

The widely used Saffir-Simpson scale, which categorizes hurricane intensity, was created in the 1970s. The original scale, which was based solely on wind speed, was updated in 2009 to add the threat of storm surge and flooding, two factors within a hurricane that are the highest threat to human life.

"The Saffir-Simpson scale on its own doesn’t capture all the severe impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms, such as coastal storm surge and flooding rainfall, which, on average, are the primary cause of death and destruction due to hurricanes,” Dr. Joel N. Myers, the CEO of AccuWeather, said.

Scientists and communicators are currently working on how to improve the Saffir-Simpson scale, reports the Washington Post.

At the end of the day, the categories exist to help translate the severity of approaching weather into terms people can understand. The same can be said about the Enhanced Fujita scale for tornadoes and the Richter scale for earthquakes.

News 6 meteorologist Candace Campos said adding another scale to hurricane season may not help people better prepare for an incoming storm.

"Slight tweaks to older, outdated, updated models, is a good thing," Campos said, adding that technology and building codes are also improving safety.

But many more people and much more property are now along the storm-threatened coastlines of the Gulf and the Atlantic, which means having a clear way to understand a storm's threat level becomes more important than ever.
 
"The problem lies in having different categories from different sources," Campos said. "For a change to happen smoothly, news media outlets and the weather service need to go hand in hand. Having different categories from each source will add even more confusion, risking the safety of those threatened communities."

For example, Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. On the new AccuWeather RealImpact Scale, Harvey would have been designated as an RI5 hurricane because of the flooding and the winds.
 
Confusion within hurricane forecasting has already grown in recent years without the addition of a new scale.

"The combination of social media and easy access to forecast models is another battle meteorologists are fighting," Campos said. "Anyone can now go online and copy one frame of an unreliable model and post it to their social media pages. A few hundred shares and likes later, the unreliable model run has now overtaken your news feed. Can you imagine adding another category scale on top of that?"

Campos agrees that updates to the Saffir-Simpson scale are necessary but for an update to work, there needs to be an overall agreement for change across the board.

Editor's note: News 6 does not subscribe to AccuWeather, which is a paid weather service.

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