Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 10:11 PM GMT on November 21, 2006
Sorry for putting this out so late in the day. The fourth in the series of Dr. Masters' vacation blogs.
This is last part of an interview I did with the Northwest Florida Daily News of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, that was published on Sunday, May 28. The questions were posed to me by Del Stone Jr., Deputy Managing Editor and self-admitted weather nut. This portion of the interview was meant to run during my last vacation back in June, but Tropical Storm Alberto put an early end to that trip! I'll be back to live blogging Thanksgiving weekend.
Q. What about NHC's storm-naming convention? NHC uses anglicized and Latino names for storms, but clearly exhausted its list for 2005 and used letters of the Greek alphabet for storm names. But the Greek alphabet is limited. For instance, had NHC named the unnamed tropical storm that formed late in the 2005 season, then Hurricane Wilma would have been named Hurricane Alpha. Seeing as how Wilma has been retired, and the Greek alphabet cannot be expanded, the name Alpha came very close to being retired, which would mean busy seasons in the future would skip Alpha and go directly to Beta, possibly confusing the public. How would you fix this problem?
A. James Franklin, one of the NHC hurricane specialists, told me that he came up with an alternate list of names to replace Greek names and avoid this problem. He presented his list this year to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) committee that decides such matters, but they unanimously rejected his proposal. He thought that when and if we ever do retire a Greek name, the WMO will then have no choice but to accept his alternate list.
Q. The Weather Underground has a space reserved for blogs. This is a lively venue, with amateur weather fans reporting and speculating about weather phenomena, including hurricanes. At times the blog entries seem to cross the line between amusing pastime and actual public service reporting, particularly during last year's Hurricane Wilma as the storm bore down on the Yucatan Peninsula and official reports were skimpy at best. How would you characterize the accuracy and utility of such blog dispatches? Does blogging have a role in weather reporting?
A. I think we're just starting to explore that. I tried to feature blogs from wunderbloggers who were in the path of last year's storms, but it was difficult to find the time to coordinate this, in addition to all of my other duties. We'll continue to explore how best to take advantage of this great new communication opportunity in the coming hurricane seasons. I think blogging offers a great alternative to the sensational journalism ones sees in the news media; you're more likely to get an honest picture of what's really happening.
Q: NHC seems to produce very accurate predictions of storm paths. Now, they will attempt to forecast storm intensity at landfall. What's your take on this? Does NHC have access to new technology that allows them to make such forecasts? And if they are wrong, do you foresee negative ramifications?
A. The NHC's best performing computer model the past three years, the GFDL, got an upgrade of the equations it uses for the coming hurricane season. The new model was retrospectively run on Ivan and Katrina, and made track forecasts that were 10-12% better, and 5-day intensity forecasts that were 30% better. However, the retrospective intensity forecasts for Rita and Emily were slightly worse, so our ability to make better intensity forecasts still has a long ways to go. There is also a new model being made available to the public next year, the Hurricane Weather Research Forecast (HWRF) model, which will replace the GFDL. So, the models are getting better, mostly thanks to the tremendous amount that has been learned through research over the past 20 years. However, intensity forecasting is still in the primitive stages, and we should continue to expect large errors in landfall intensity forecasts. I think that NHC has to put out intensity forecasts, because they do have some skill over chance.
Q: NHC debated eliminating the middle line in the cone of probability of landfalling hurricane predictions. Ultimately they decided to keep the middle line. What's your opinion about the middle line?
A. I like the middle line. As a scientist, I am used to seeing data presented as a line with error bounds.
Q. Lastly, here's a fun question. The Weather Underground is beginning to appear in news stories about hurricanes, and with the increase in tropical cyclone activity The Weather Underground has become one of the go-to places for storm information. How does it feel to be a "star"? Do you face any of the privations normally reserved for people like Brad Pitt or Madonna?
A. Well, living here in Michigan, I don't encounter too many people who've heard of me. When I travel, though, I've learned to be armed with Weather Underground pens to give away! I haven't signed any autographs yet, but have had to endure getting my picture taken with blog fans a few times. All in all, it's been a very modest amount of fame that hasn't been unpleasant at all, and I have been very much enjoying sharing my knowledge and stories with people.
Q. Many thanks, Dr. Masters!
A. You're welcome!
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