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Research / Discovery

Researchers analyzing fizzled forecast

January 23, 2014
Kortny Rolston

CSU researchers are trying to figure out why their 2013 Atlantic hurricane predictions were a bust.

Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project team ended the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season not with a bang but  a bust.  Researchers announced in November that, like just about everyone else in the business, their predictions for the 2013 season missed the mark.

In the months since, researchers Phil Klotzbach and William Gray have been studying the data to see why their prediction of an above-average season was so far off. They had hoped to have the numbers crunched and an explanation by early January of why no major hurricanes developed in 2013 for the first time since 1994.

Gray and Klotzbach believe a significant cooling of waters in the eastern Atlantic associated with a weakening of the thermohaline circulation -- or the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation -- in the spring months was the primary reason for the inactivity.

But there are significant disagreements between historical datasets about the conditions of the atmosphere during the June-November hurricane season.

“The data we get from these sources is usually very similar, and we can tell what was happening in the atmosphere during the hurricane season,” Klotzbach said. “But the 2013 data does not agree, which is very unusual. For example, data from one historical product indicates that the atmosphere was very dry in 2013, while another historical product indicates that the atmosphere had near-normal moisture conditions.”

William Gray and Phil Klotzbach are raising money to keep the annual hurricane report afloat.

The project to decipher the data has expanded to include researchers from around the world, including scientists from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the University of Miami and the University College-London.  

“There are a lot of people trying to figure it out,” Klotzbach said.

In search of sponsors

While the data-crunching continues, Klozbach and Gray also are meeting with insurance companies and presenting at various weather-related conferences in an effort to raise the $150,000 annual support needed to continue the annual hurricane forecast.

They had announced in November that this year’s seasonal reports would be the last without additional sponsorships.

The forecast’s potential demise after nearly 30 years made headlines in the weather industry and in the mainstream media – particularly East Coast outlets that eagerly anticipate the preseason outlook in April as well as the June update and the end-of-season report.

Michael Watkins, founder of Hurricane Analytics, a private organization specializing in data visualization and predictive analytics with a special focus on tropical meteorology, posted a column about the possible end of the report.  

“…. the dearth of Atlantic hurricane landfall activity over the last 8 years has reduced public concern for the hurricane problem. If hurricanes don’t hit the U.S., funding sources within the U.S. don’t care,” Watkins wrote.

He also credited Gray and Klotzbach for their honesty, saying “few sources verify their forecasts as stringently.”

“Every year, they closely assess their forecasts and note what worked and what didn’t, release those results to the public, and openly discuss what went right and what was wrong.  Few private weather sources do the same, and none are as detailed and brutally honest as the CSU evaluations,” Watkins wrote.

Eric Berger wrote in a SciGuy blog at Houston’s that while hurricane forecasting is far from exact – and cited the CSU report – it is still important.

“….I’d like to see Gray and Klotzbach continue to issue their forecasts. Why? Because this is science. It’s messy, and in the case of seasonal forecasting, it’s in its infancy. The only way to improve these forecasts is to continue to do them, and then continue to carefully assess what works, and what does not work, after each season,” he wrote.

The CSU team is optimistic it will be issuing the annual prediction this spring like it has for the past 30 years.

“If I had to guess, I think we will be putting out a 2014 report,” Klotzbach said. “I think we will find the funding to keep it going.”

For more information about sponsoring the Tropical Meteorology Project’s annual hurricane forecast, contact Klotzbach.