Author: James Franklin
Two years ago this month, Tropical Storm Bill made landfall along the central Texas coast, just 17 hours after becoming a tropical cyclone only 145 miles offshore. The precursor disturbance, a broad and ill-defined area of low pressure, had already been producing tropical-storm-force winds, and there was little doubt that the system would soon bring those dangerous winds onshore. Although NHC’s Tropical Weather Outlooks had been talking about the possibility of those conditions two days in advance, and their likelihood one day in advance, some in the media and emergency management communities lamented the lack of earlier formal tropical storm warnings and full advisory products from NHC. A few even suggested that NHC classify the disturbance as a tropical storm when it wasn’t one. By policy and tradition, NHC advisories, track and intensity forecasts, and any associated watches and warnings begin only after a disturbance has become a tropical cyclone; in this case a tropical storm warning was issued as soon as Bill formed, about 12 hours before the hazardous winds reached the coast. For some additional discussion on why warnings couldn’t have been issued any earlier for Bill, please see our blog post written after that event.
This is hardly the only example of a tropical cyclone striking land shortly after genesis, and well within the normal 48-hour watch/warning time frame. In 2010, Tomas struck Barbados as a tropical storm 27 hours after formation, and St. Vincent and St. Lucia as a hurricane 38 hours after formation. In September of 2007, Humberto made landfall as a hurricane along the Texas coast a mere 19 hours after becoming a tropical cyclone. This recurring problem has been on our minds for a long time, and this season we’ve introduced a service enhancement to address the issue.
Starting this year, NHC has the option to issue advisories, track and intensity forecasts, watches, and warnings for disturbances that are not yet a tropical cyclone, but which pose the threat of bringing tropical storm or hurricane conditions to land areas within 48 hours. This substantial change in policy means that we won’t have to wait for a disturbance to meet the technical requirements of a tropical cyclone (such as having a well-defined center of circulation or sufficiently organized thunderstorm activity) to issue forecasts or post warnings. And boy, it didn’t take long for us to employ this new option, with both the pre-Bret and pre-Cindy disturbances requiring the initiation of potential tropical cyclone advisories on two consecutive days! But more on that in a moment.
Although we’ve been working on the technical and administrative changes to bring this about over the past two years, the effort actually began after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, when NHC was asked to provide enhanced forecast support for the response effort. Since then, NHC has been practicing making track and intensity forecasts for disturbances, and at the same time we’ve been improving our ability to forecast tropical cyclone genesis. We now believe that the science has advanced enough to allow the confident prediction of tropical cyclone impacts while these systems are still in the developmental stage.
So for these land-threatening “potential tropical cyclones” (and that’s the term we’re using in our advisories), NHC can now issue the full suite of text, graphical, and watch/warning products that previously has only been used for ongoing tropical cyclones. This includes the cone graphic, public advisory, discussion, wind speed probabilities – everything – and all the products will look exactly the same as our tropical cyclone products. The only thing that’s different is what we call the “system type”; we’ve added POTENTIAL TROPICAL CYCLONE to the roster of possible system types. And since you asked (or at least were thinking about asking), here’s the complete list:
POTENTIAL TROPICAL CYCLONE
For those who are interested in the definitions of each of these system types, you can find them in National Weather Service Instruction 10-604, Tropical Cyclone Names and Definitions.
We did consider some alternatives to the term potential tropical cyclone. “Tropical disturbance” was a fairly obvious option but we knew that some of these precursor disturbances weren’t going to be tropical in nature (such as a frontal cyclone evolving into a subtropical or tropical cyclone), so that eliminated tropical disturbance. Another option was simply “disturbance”, which aside from evoking Star Wars imagery (I felt a great disturbance in the Gulf), did not in our view adequately convey the appropriate level of threat. In the end, potential tropical cyclone seemed both accurate and appropriate to the threat, although it’ll take a bit of getting used to for some.
Potential tropical cyclones will share the naming rules currently used for depressions, with depressions and potential tropical cyclones being numbered from a single list (e.g., “One”, “Two”, “Three”, …, “Twenty-Three”, etc.). The assigned number will always match the total number of systems we’ve written advisories on within that basin during the season. For example, if three systems requiring advisories have already occurred within a basin in a given year, the next land-threatening disturbance would be designated “Potential Tropical Cyclone Four”. If a potential tropical cyclone becomes a tropical depression, its numerical designation doesn’t change (i.e., Potential Tropical Cyclone Four becomes Tropical Depression Four).
Potential tropical cyclone advisory packages will be issued at the standard advisory times of 5 AM, 11 AM, 5 PM, and 11 PM EDT, with three-hourly Intermediate Public Advisories being issued at 2 AM, 8 AM, 2 PM, and 8 PM EDT when watches or warnings are in effect. The product suite will include a five-day track and intensity forecast, just as is done for ongoing tropical cyclones. In addition, the Potential Storm Surge Flooding Map and Storm Surge Watch/Warning graphic would be issued for these systems when appropriate. We’ll continue issuing advisory packages on a potential tropical cyclone until watches or warnings are discontinued or until the threat of tropical-storm-force winds for land areas sufficiently diminishes, at which point advisories would be discontinued. However, if it seems likely that new watches or warnings would be necessary within a short period of time (say 6-12 hours), then advisories could continue during that brief gap in warnings in the interest of service continuity.
Since the primary issuance trigger is the threat of tropical storm conditions over land, there won’t be any specific threshold of formation likelihood for the initiation of advisories. For example, a fast-moving tropical wave approaching the Lesser Antilles might already have tropical-storm-force winds but no closed wind circulation. In this case, a genesis forecast of 40% – 50% would likely be enough to trigger advisories and warnings. In contrast, a genesis forecast of 70% for a system close to shore might not trigger advisories if the system were not expected to reach tropical storm strength before moving inland.
The issuance of NHC products for potential tropical cyclones is very much analogous to the change that occurred after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when NHC advisories on post-tropical cyclones became possible. After Sandy, we realized that there was great benefit to users in NHC’s being able to continue writing advisories on systems even after they were no longer a tropical cyclone. That solved the service continuity problem on the “back end”, and now we’re completing the process by ensuring a steady flow of information on the front end of a tropical cyclone’s life cycle. In all cases, we’ll be trying to ensure that warning types (tropical vs. non-tropical) don’t have to change in the middle of an event.
There are some things to be aware of with this new capability. First, potential tropical cyclone advisories will not be issued for systems that threaten only marine areas – largely because this would pose an unmanageable workload/staffing issue for us but also because marine forecast products (the High Seas and Offshore Waters forecasts) already allow the issuance of gale and storm warnings before a tropical cyclone has formed.
Second, because potential tropical cyclones will have a standard five-day forecast track and uncertainty cone, to avoid potential confusion with the cone we’re going to stop drawing potential formation areas for these systems in the Graphical Tropical Weather Outlook.
We’re also concerned that some users may pay too much attention to the longer-range part of these new forecasts (the part beyond 72 hours). We know that forecast errors for weaker and developing systems tend to be larger than those for strong storms and hurricanes, and we even considered only going out to 72 hours with the new potential tropical cyclone advisories (since the primary purpose was to support watches and warnings). But in the end, consistency and technical issues argued for going out to five days, and that’s what we’re doing. So it’s likely that forecast-to-forecast changes in the longer-range portion of our potential tropical cyclone advisories will be larger than what folks are used to. And for those of you who like to look at forecast model intensity guidance, be aware that most of these intensity models assume the system is a tropical cyclone. Since that won’t be the case for these systems, intensity models run on potential tropical cyclones will generally have a high bias. And lastly, since many potential tropical cyclones will not have well-defined centers, there will likely be large jumps in the reported location of these systems from advisory to advisory. But even with all these caveats, we think that the ability to post warnings before a cyclone forms is an important service enhancement – one that will help save lives and protect property, while at the same time allowing NHC to analyze and report on tropical systems as accurately and as honestly as possible.
After our experiences with Bret and Cindy, we’re optimistic about the value of this new capability. Advisories on Potential Tropical Cyclone Two were started 24 hours before Bret officially became a tropical cyclone, giving residents of Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and northeastern Venezuela an additional day of warning for tropical storm conditions. If this were still 2016, places like Trinidad may have only had three to six hours between the time of the first advisory and the time when tropical storm force winds began on the island. And for Cindy, advisories on Potential Tropical Cyclone Three were initiated roughly 21 hours before Cindy met the criteria of a tropical cyclone. This allowed Tropical Storm Warnings to be issued for southeastern Louisiana 21 hours earlier than they would have been if the storm had occurred last year.
Just a few weeks into the new season, we’re pretty happy about the way this all worked. We think we successfully demonstrated the ability to provide more advanced warning than we could have in previous years for these developing tropical cyclones. But we’d love to hear feedback from our users, customers, and partners. Were the potential tropical cyclone advisories in advance of Bret and Cindy confusing? Helpful? Maybe both? Or bad puns aside, did the new capability fit the “Bill”?
If you’d like to provide comments on your experiences with the Potential Tropical Cyclone advisories during Bret and Cindy, please feel free to contact Jessica Schauer, the NWS Tropical Cyclone Program Leader, at Jessica.Schauer@noaa.gov.
— James Franklin
Editor’s Note: This post marks James’s last blog contribution as a member of the NHC family. After 35 years of service in the federal government (17 years at NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division and 18 years at the National Hurricane Center), James is retiring at the end of this week. We want to thank James for his contributions to not only the blog, but also for his many contributions to hurricane forecasting and NHC operations over the past several decades. Although James will no longer be “inside the eye” of the sometimes-hectic NHC scene, we know he won’t be too far away cheering on his beloved Miami Hurricanes, Miami Dolphins, and Florida Panthers. Congratulations, James, and happy retirement!
Tropical Storm Erika, coming as it did so close to the beginning of the new college and professional football seasons, is a reminder that Monday-morning quarterbacking is nearly as popular an activity as the sport itself. And we at NHC do it too. After every storm we review our operations with an eye toward improving our products and services. Erika is no different, though there’s been more questioning and criticism than usual, with few components of the weather enterprise spared. Some in the media were accused of overinflating the threat, numerical models were bashed, and some public officials were charged with overreacting. NHC’s forecasts were questioned while others lamented that NHC’s voice wasn’t strong enough amid all the chatter. So, in the spirit of searching for a tropical storm eureka, in this blog entry we present some of our own post-storm reflections.
How good were NHC’s forecasts for Erika?
The NHC official forecast errors were larger than average. A preliminary verification shows that the average 72-hr track error for Erika was 153 n mi, about 30% larger than the 5-year average of 113 n mi. And nearly all of this error was a rightward (northward) bias – that is, Erika moved consistently to the left of the NHC forecast track. As for intensity, Erika ended up being weaker than forecast; the 72-hr intensity forecasts were off by about 20 kt on average, and the official 5-day forecasts called for a hurricane over or near Florida until as late as 2 AM Friday, when it became clear that Erika was going to have to deal with the high terrain of Hispaniola.
Why was Erika so difficult to get right?
Erika was a weak and disorganized tropical cyclone, and weak systems generally present us (and the computer simulations we consider) with tougher forecast challenges. In fact, the average 72-hr track error for all tropical depressions and weak tropical storms is around 155 n mi – just about exactly what the errors for Erika were. So the track issues weren’t really a surprise to us. Of course, knowing whether such errors were going to occur and how to reduce them in real time wasn’t obvious. If it had been obvious, we would have called an audible and changed the forecast.
What made this particular situation so challenging was wind shear, mainly due to strong upper-level westerly winds in Erika’s environment. These winds tended to displace the storm’s thunderstorms away from its low-level circulation, causing the storm to lack a coherent vertical structure. When this happens, it’s very difficult to tell just how much influence those upper-level winds will have on the storm track. Sometimes storms hold together against wind shear (Andrew of 1992 is a good example), and there were times when Erika seemed to be winning its battle. If it had held together better, it would have taken a track more to the north and ended up being a much stronger system. Obviously, it didn’t play out that way, but that was an outcome far easier to see with the benefit of hindsight.
An additional complication was Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. If Erika had been able to avoid those land masses, it would have been better able to withstand the disruptive effects of wind shear. And early on, we expected Erika to mostly avoid land. In this case, not getting the track right made it much harder to get the intensity right, which made the track forecasts harder yet.
Is there too much reliance on numerical models, and did they fail for Erika?
The improvements in track forecasting over the past few decades are directly attributable to improvements in numerical models, and to the data used to initialize them, to the point where it’s become almost impossible for a human forecaster to consistently outperform the guidance. The modelling community deserves our praise for the tremendous progress they’ve made, not criticism for missing this one. While we approach each forecast with an attempt to diagnose when and how the models might fail, it is exceedingly difficult, and it’s not something we do in our public forecasts unless our confidence is very high.
Human forecasters (including those at NHC) are still able to occasionally outperform the intensity models, mainly because satellite depictions of storm structure can often be used by forecasters more effectively than by models, giving us an edge in certain circumstances. But neither human forecasters nor the models are particularly good at anticipating when thunderstorms in the cyclone core are going to develop and how they’re going to subsequently evolve, especially for weaker cyclones like Erika.
Because the atmosphere is a “chaotic” physical system, small differences in an initial state can lead to very large differences in how that state will evolve with time. This is why the model guidance for Erika was frustratingly inconsistent – sometimes showing a strong hurricane near Florida, while at other times showing a dissipating system in the northeastern Caribbean. It’s going to take a large improvement in our ability to observe in and around the tropical cyclone core (among other things), to better forecast cases like Erika for which storm structure is so important to the ultimate outcome. But our best hope for better forecasts lies in improved modeling–a major goal of the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program (HFIP).
Given the overall model guidance we received during Erika, it’s hard even now, well after the storm, to see making a substantially different forecast with current capabilities and limitations. In fact, had our first few advisories called for a track much farther south at a much weaker intensity, or even a forecast of dissipation due to interaction with Hispaniola, our partners and the public might rightly have questioned our rationale to go firmly against many model forecasts of a stronger system farther north.
Was the message from NHC muddled?
We think that there might be some ways for NHC to make key aspects of our message easier to find. Although NHC’s Tropical Cyclone Discussions (TCDs) repeatedly talked about the uncertainty surrounding Erika’s future beyond the Caribbean, including the possibility that the cyclone could dissipate before reaching Florida, it does not appear that this was a prominent part of the media’s message to Florida residents. Making key “talking points” more distinctly visible in the TCD and the Public Advisory are options we are considering, as well as enhanced use of NHC’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Having said that, consumers and especially re-packagers of tropical cyclone forecast information, like our media partners, should take some responsibility for making use of the information that is already available. We also invite our media partners to take more advantage of the numerous training sessions we offer, mostly during the hurricane offseason. Reaching anyone in the television industry with such training, except for on-camera meteorologists, has proven over the years to be very difficult. We would like to train more reporters, producers, news department staff, executives, etc. so they are more sensitized to forecast uncertainty and how to communicate it with the help of our products, but we realize that a more focused “talking points” approach as described above will probably be needed to assist these busy folks in conveying a consistent message.
An NHC advisory package contains a variety of products, each geared to providing a certain kind of information or to serving a particular set of users. Some of our media partners have expressed concerns over the increasing number of NHC products, but the various wind and water hazards posed by a tropical cyclone cannot be boiled down to one graphic, one scale, or one index. We are, in fact, still in the process of intentionally expanding our product and warning suite to focus more on the individual hazards and promote a more consistent message about those hazards. Even so, two of our products that have been around for many years are still crying out for greater visibility.
We’ve already mentioned the Tropical Cyclone Discussion, a two- to four-paragraph text product that is the window into the forecaster’s thinking and provides the rationale behind the NHC official forecast. In the TCD we talk about the meteorology of the situation, indicate our level of confidence in the forecast, and when appropriate, discuss alternative scenarios to the one represented by the official forecast. Anyone whose job it is to communicate the forecast needs to make the TCD mandatory reading on every forecast cycle.
Some users may not understand the amount of uncertainty that is inherent in hurricane forecasts (although we suspect Florida residents now have a greater appreciation of it than they had two weeks ago). We need to continue to emphasize, and ask our media partners to emphasize, NHC’s Wind Speed Probability Product, available in both text and graphical form, which describes the chances of hurricane- and tropical-storm-force winds occurring at individual locations over the five-day forecast period. Someone looking at that product would have seen that at no point during Erika’s lifetime did the chance of hurricane-force winds reach even 5% at any individual location in the state of Florida, and that the chances of tropical-storm-force winds remained 50-50 or less. In addition, in some of the number crunching we did after the storm, we calculated that the chance of hurricane-force winds occurring anywhere along the coast of Florida never got above 21%.
We realize that at first it seems counterintuitive that we are forecasting a hurricane near Florida while no one in that state has even a 5% chance of experiencing hurricane-force winds. That, however, is the reality of uncertainties in 5-day forecasts, especially for weaker systems like Erika, and the wind speed probabilities reliably convey the wind risk in each community. We did notice a couple of on-air meteorologists referencing the Wind Speed Probabilities, which is great – and the more exposure this product gets, the better. We would like to work with our television partners to help them take advantage of existing ways for many of them to easily bring the wind speed probabilities into their in-house graphics display systems.
A very nice training module exists for folks interested in learning about how to use the Wind Speed Probabilities: https://www.meted.ucar.edu/training_module.php?id=1190#.VenooLQ2KfQ. You will need to register for a free COMET/MetEd account in order to access the training module.
Did Floridians over-prepare for Erika?
Anyone who went shopping for water and other supplies once they were in the five-day cone did exactly the right thing (of course, it’s much better to do that at the beginning of hurricane season!). Being in or near the five-day cone is a useful wake-up call for folks to be prepared in case watches or warnings are needed later. But as it turned out, no watches or warnings were ever issued for Florida. In fact, at the time when watches would normally have gone up for South Florida, NHC decided to wait, knowing that there was a significant chance they would never be needed – and that turned out to be the right call.
Watches (which provide ~48 hours notice of the possibility of hurricane or tropical storm conditions) and warnings (~36 hours notice that those conditions are likely) seem to be getting less attention these days, with the focus on a storm ramping up several days in advance of the first watch. While the additional heads-up is helpful, we worry about focusing in on specific potential targets or impacts that far in advance. The watch/warning process begins only 48 hours in advance because that’s the time frame when confidence in the forecast finally gets high enough to justify the sometimes costly actions that an approaching tropical cyclone requires. (Although, we recognize that some especially vulnerable areas sometimes have to begin evacuations prior to the issuance of a watch or a warning, and we and the local Weather Forecast Offices of the National Weather Service directly support emergency management partners as they make such decisions.)
What can NHC do better next time?
While we’d like to make a perfect forecast every time, we know that’s not possible. Failing that, we’re thinking about ways we can improve the visibility of our key messages, particularly those that will help users better understand forecast uncertainty. As noted above, we’re considering adding a clearly labeled list of key messages or talking points to either the TCD or the Tropical Cyclone Public Advisory, or both. We’d also like to try to make increased use of our Twitter accounts (@NHC_Atlantic, @NWSNHC, and @NHCDirector), which so far have been mostly limited to automated tweets or to more administrative or procedural topics. We’re also looking at whether the size of the cone should change as our confidence in a forecast changes (right now the cone size is only adjusted once at the beginning of each season), and thinking about ways to convey intensity uncertainty on the cone graphic. But most of all, we need to keep working to educate the media and the public about the nature of hurricane forecasts generally, and how to get the information they need to make smart decisions when storms threaten.
— James Franklin
The development of Tropical Storm Bill so close to the Texas coast, with the posting of a formal tropical storm warning only about 12 hours before winds of that intensity came ashore on Tuesday June 16th, highlighted a long-standing and well-known limitation in the tropical cyclone program of the National Weather Service (NWS). An ongoing NHC initiative to improve service for such systems is the subject of today’s blog post.
Although there’s nothing new about a tropical cyclone forming on our doorstep, what is new is an increased ability to anticipate it. NHC has greatly enhanced its forecasts of tropical cyclone formation over the past several years, introducing quantitative 48-hr genesis forecasts to the Tropical Weather Outlook in 2008, and extending those forecasts to 120 hours in 2013. In 2014, we introduced a graphic showing the locations of tropical disturbances and the areas where they could develop into a depression or storm over the subsequent five days. Thirty-six hours in advance of Bill’s formation, NHC gave the precursor disturbance a 60% chance of becoming a tropical cyclone, and increased that probability to 80% about 24 hours in advance. While nothing was guaranteed, we were pretty confident a tropical storm was going to form before the disturbance reached the coast. And although we weren’t issuing specific track forecasts for the disturbance, NHC’s new graphical Tropical Weather Outlook (example below) showed where the system was generally headed.
We wouldn’t have had such confidence 20 years ago, or even 5 years ago. And so our tropical cyclone warning system, developed over several decades, doesn’t allow for a watch or warning until a depression or storm actually forms and NHC’s advisories begin; by both policy and software, warning issuances are tied to cyclone advisories. If we had wanted to issue a tropical storm watch for Bill on the morning of Sunday the 14th (48 hours prior to landfall), or a warning that evening (36 hours ahead of landfall), we would have had to pretend that the disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico was a tropical cyclone. Even during the day on Monday, data from an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft showed that the disturbance had not yet become a depression or storm.
Couldn’t NHC have called the disturbance a tropical storm anyway, in the interest of enhanced preparedness? Yes, but what if the disturbance never becomes a tropical storm – remember, even an 80% chance of formation means it won’t become a tropical storm at least once every five times. So naming it early risks the credibility of the NWS and NHC, and endangers a trust we’ve worked for decades to establish. In addition, there are legal and financial consequences to an official designation of a tropical cyclone – consequences that obligate us to call it straight. And finally, as custodians of the tropical cyclone historical record, we have a responsibility to ensure the integrity of that record.
When systems that have the potential to become tropical cyclones pose hazards to life and property, NHC’s best avenue for highlighting those hazards currently is the Tropical Weather Outlook. Ahead of Bill’s formation, the possibility of tropical storm conditions along the middle and upper Texas coast was included in the Sunday evening Outlook, and by early Monday afternoon the Outlooks were saying those conditions were likely. Products issued by NWS local forecast offices (WFOs) carried similar statements.
Although most folks seemed to have gotten the message that a tropical storm was coming, it’s widely thought that the Tropical Weather Outlook and local WFO products don’t carry the visibility and weight of an NHC warning, or of an NHC advisory package with its attendant graphics. In addition, some institutions have preparedness plans that are tied to the presence of warnings. We agree that warnings during the disturbance stage could improve community response, and we’ve been working toward that goal since 2011. In that season, NHC initiated an internal experiment in which the Hurricane Specialists prepare track and intensity forecasts for disturbances with a high likelihood of development, and use these forecasts to determine where watches and warnings would have been appropriate. These internal disturbance forecasts have had some successes and failures, but may now be good enough to make public.
With our colleagues across the NWS, we’re now working through the logistics of expanding the tropical cyclone product and warning suite to accommodate disturbances. One plan under consideration calls for NHC to produce a five-day track and intensity forecast for those disturbances having a high chance of becoming a tropical cyclone, and which pose the threat of bringing tropical-storm-force winds to land areas. The forecasts would be publicly issued through the standard NHC advisory products, including the Public Advisory, Discussion, and Wind Speed Probability Product, along with the forecast cone and the other standard graphics. These advisory packages would be issued at the normal advisory times, and continue until the threat of tropical-storm-force winds over land had diminished. If and when the disturbance became a tropical cyclone, advisory packages would simply continue.
We are still evaluating these and other options for getting tropical cyclone warnings out for potential tropical cyclones. If we do begin issuing forecasts for these systems, we know from our experimental forecasts that they won’t be as accurate as our current public forecasts for tropical cyclones are – and we’ll want to make sure users know about those uncertainties. There are many details to iron out and much technical work to do, but we’re hopeful to have this service enhancement in place for the 2017 hurricane season.