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Giving thanks to the Hurricane Hunters and QuikSCAT scientists

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:54 PM GMT on November 21, 2007

Everyone knows that flying into hurricanes is dangerous work. The NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft have flown a number of dangerous flights over the years, most recently in Hurricane Felix on September 2 this year. NOAA P-3 aircraft N42RF (affectionately called Kermit), penetrated a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Felix as it approached Category 5 intensity. The aircraft hit four G's of acceleration in both the up and down directions in Felix's eyewall. Regulations require a flight to be aborted at that level of turbulence, and Kermit returned to base. A detailed inspection of the aircraft the next day revealed no damage, and Kermit returned to service for the remainder of hurricane season.

Figure 1. A NOAA P-3 refuels in Cold Bay, Alaska (left) on its way to the Aleutian Islands to fly a mission in the 1987 Alaska Storms Program. Right: The two NOAA P-3's get de-iced at Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine, as they prepare for a mission into a 'Noreaster during the Experiment on Rapidly Intensifying Cyclones over the Atlantic (ERICA) in 1989. Both photos taken by yours truly.

What is less appreciated is that these aircraft fly research missions into dangerous weather conditions year-round and world-wide, and some of the most dangerous flights have occurred far from the tropics. Earlier this year, Kermit experienced perhaps the most dangerous flight of its 31-year career. On February 9, the aircraft flew into an intense winter storm 500 miles east of Newfoundland. The mission was part of the Ocean Winds project, a study designed to test the accuracy of QuikSCAT satellite wind estimates in regions of high wind and heavy rain. Flying at 3,000 feet, the aircraft sampled the surface winds with its SFMR (Step Frequency Microwave Radiometer) and dropsondes. The flights were timed to coincide with an overhead pass of the QuikSCAT satellite, which also measured winds at the ocean surface. It was a bit of a rough ride, since the storm packed winds of 100-110 mph at flight level. Sea spray kicked up by the powerful winds reached all the way to flight level, coating the windshield with a thick white coating of salt. The windshield washer failed, leaving the windshield partially opaque. It was an unusually dry winter storm, and the rain showers needed to rinse the windshield clean were difficult to find.

Figure 2. QuikSCAT wind profile of the ocean surface at 21:22 GMT February 9, 2007, just before Kermit headed back to St. John's, Newfoundland.

After a successful 4-hour flight, the aircraft dropped its final dropsonde, and turned north to complete its final sampling run. Suddenly, crew members observed flames coming from the #3 engine, accompanied by an audible popping sound. "Fire on #3, flames, flames, flames!" came the cry over the on-board intercom system. The pilots and flight engineers immediately began an emergency shut down of the #3 engine. As they worked to shut down the engine, the ominous call, "Fire on #4!" came over the intercom. The pilot immediately began an emergency shut down of the #4 engine. With both engines on the right wing now shut down, the pilot cautiously ramped up power on the two engines on the left wing, turned the aircraft towards home base in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and attempted to climb. However, the aircraft was not able to climb on just two engines, and the pilot was forced to begin a gradual descent to 2600 feet. The pilot notified the crew to review their ditching placards, and word was send to air traffic control informing them of the emergency. Three tense minutes passed, as the crew attempted to figure out what had caused the multiple engine failures. Speculation centered on the unusually heavy accumulation of salt on the aircraft--but excessive salt had never been implicated in engine failures before. Then, the words they all dreaded, "Fire on #1!" burst out over the intercom. The flight engineer immediately pulled the emergency shutdown handle for the #1 engine, and Kermit began a 700 foot per minute descent towards the turbulent sea below.

The crew donned survival suits as the pilot issued a May-day distress call and prepared to ditch the aircraft. Beneath them, hurricane force winds blew over the night-shrouded North Atlantic waters. With waves easily reaching 20 feet, water temperatures near freezing, and 500 miles out at sea at night, prospects for survival were dim. Four minutes remained to restart one of the flamed-out engines, and the pilot called for an immediate restart of the #1 engine. As the flight engineer worked to comply, Kermit passed through a brief rain shower that washed considerable salt from the aircraft. The attempt to restart the #1 engine succeeded, and Kermit pulled out of its descent just 800 feet above the waves--one minute from impact.

The crew now worked to restart the failed #3 and #4 engines, while the plane slowly climbed away from the ocean surface. As they headed towards Newfoundland, the Canadian Air Force launched a search and rescue C-130 aircraft from Nova Scotia to intercept Kermit. Crews on the Hibernia and Terra Nova oil rigs located east of Newfoundland were alerted of the emergency, and stood by to help if necessary. Kermit's navigator continuously plotted vectors to the oil rigs at they flew home, in case a ditch near one of the rigs became necessary.

As they continued westward, the crew successfully restarted both the #3 and #4 engines, but at reduced power. Kermit climbed to a more comfortable altitude of 14,000 feet and made it uneventfully back to St. Johns. Fortunately, the engines were undamaged and perfectly operational after the salt was washed out, and the data collected during the mission was saved. According to the detailed NOAA Mishap Investigation Report posted on Chris Mooney's excellent blog, "Post flight inspection of engines revealed significant white build up on intakes, first stage compressors, and CIP probes of all four engines. Subjectively, the #2 engine appeared to be the worst coated of all engines. Aircraft fuselage and windows were also heavily coated." Salt build-up on the engines was determined to be the cause of the incident. The unusually dry nature of the storm prevented the salt from being washed off, and was probably part of the reason the engines failed on this flight, and not on previous flights.

I asked Dr. Jim McFadden, project manager of the Ocean Winds project, what happened. He was on the flight, and responded:

This event stumped everyone including the experts who spend a life-time studying sea salt and aerosols in the marine boundary layer. Six previous flights in similar conditions had resulted in nothing like this. But this one was different. It was flown over an ocean warmed by the Gulf Stream in a dry slot of cold Canadian air. Somehow that combination was the key to what could have been a disastrous flight. Fortunately, quick thinking and the flawless action of the crew brought about by excellent training got us home safely.

Last week in Washington D.C., the crew of Kermit was honored with the Department of Commerce's Gold Medal for successfully bringing home the aircraft. The crew members from NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center who were on the flight were:

LCDR Mark Nelson
LCDR Carl Newman
Joseph Klippel
LCDR Peter Siegel
LCDR Joseph Bishop
Tom Shepherd
James Barr
Terry Lynch
William Olney
James McFadden

QuikSCAT scientists Paul Chang and Rob Contreras were also present on the flight.

Separate Department of Commerce Gold and Silver Medals were also awarded last week for scientists involved in leading NOAA's operational use of NASA's QuikSCAT satellite to produce more accurate forecasts and warnings of marine and coastal weather:

Paul Chang
Hugh Cobb III (NWS)
Roger Edson (NWS)
James Franklin (NHC)
Richard Knabb (NHC)
Eugene Legg
Kevin Schrab (NWS)
Joseph Sienkiewicz (NWS)

A Gold Medal is defined as distinguished performance characterized by extraordinary, notable or prestigious contributions that impact the mission of the Department and/or one operating unit and which reflect favorably on the Department. Congratulations to all the awardees, and thanks for all that you do!

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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505. BajaALemt
11:37 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Chow, NE...take care
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504. BajaALemt
11:36 AM CST on November 26, 2007
flaboy.....LOL!!! I thought you guys NEEDED the rain up that way
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503. NEwxguy
5:36 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Well,gotta get back to work,bbl
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502. NEwxguy
5:35 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Awww,how could you not enjoy slush,ice on the windshield -20 degree windchill,snow drifts
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501. BajaALemt
11:33 AM CST on November 26, 2007
I lived up in Ohio for ONE winter..that was enough for me. I guess if you're used to that...it's nice.
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500. flaboyinga
12:26 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Baja, it looks like your lawn sprinkler might get me after all. Maybe if I don't wash my truck, and I don't rake any more leaves. Hmmmm.

Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
499. NEwxguy
5:30 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
498. BajaALemt 5:30 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
60 up YOUR way...WOULD be nice!! I hear people from up north, down here, say 40s is SHORTS weather (brrrr)

Well,come January,40 is a heat wave,by the looks of the long range for next week,some real cold air coming in
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498. BajaALemt
11:29 AM CST on November 26, 2007
60 up YOUR way...WOULD be nice!! I hear people from up north, down here, say 40s is SHORTS weather (brrrr)
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497. NEwxguy
5:26 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Baja,we had actually beautiful weather for the day,it reached 60 in the afternoon,so could get out and walk off some of that turkey.
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496. BajaALemt
11:22 AM CST on November 26, 2007
LOL..it probably IS. Except that, every year I say I'm NOT going to eat that much again..and every year I do. But then, I know Im in good company..sooooooooooooo
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495. NEwxguy
5:17 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
493. BajaALemt 5:17 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Awwww good, glad to hear you enjoyed yours. I did too..ate too much, but it sure was good

Isn't that an unwritten law,one must over eat,thus falling asleep on couch in front of tv.
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494. Patrap
11:19 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Check was FedEx'ed...LOL
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493. BajaALemt
11:16 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Awwww good, glad to hear you enjoyed yours. I did too..ate too much, but it sure was good
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492. NEwxguy
5:13 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Nice to see you too baja,how was your holiday?I had a good thanksgiving.
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491. ShenValleyFlyFish
12:09 PM EST on November 26, 2007
Patrap you get your $5 yet?
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490. BajaALemt
11:04 AM CST on November 26, 2007
take care v2

Morne NE...nice to see ya
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489. V26R
5:03 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Im gonna get running to work
Talk to ya'll later

Congrats NEWX on another victory

Stay Safe everyone
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488. NEwxguy
5:01 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
GM/Afternoon all
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487. BajaALemt
11:01 AM CST on November 26, 2007
That'd suck if you were traveling
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486. V26R
4:59 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Not so sure about Pine Needles know that wet leaves suck
Man just heard that there is something like a 3 hour delay in arrivals and departures from Laguardia Airport up here
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
485. BajaALemt
10:57 AM CST on November 26, 2007
LOL...bummer...I'd think it'd be easier to rake up wet leaves (I dont have leaves to rake...I got PINE NEEDLES!!.....and they DO clump a little when wet *laffs*)
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484. V26R
4:55 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Morning Flaboy
Woke up to heavy rain up here actually sounded like sleet and all the leaves I picked up yesterday were back again
SO it looks like I didn't do a thing yesterday!
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
483. BajaALemt
10:52 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Mornin V2 *grabs hat real quick* hehe

Looked real good over by Ft. Walton in the wee hours. Woke up to a little rain and that was about it. Disappointing (to me) LOL

How you doin?
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482. flaboyinga
11:51 AM EST on November 26, 2007
Mornin', V26.
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481. V26R
4:49 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Morning all
Baja how'd you make out last night?
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480. BajaALemt
10:47 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Here's a NexStorm site in Reynolds, GA...

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479. flaboyinga
11:29 AM EST on November 26, 2007
This looks kind of interesting.

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478. flaboyinga
11:21 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Baha, thanks for the link. It looks like I'm gonna be on the frontal boundary between the low in the west and the high over the Atlantic. The wind out of the south might get real interesting if we get any fires today.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
477. BajaALemt
10:22 AM CST on November 26, 2007
flboy...I HEAR ya. Looking at radar this morning...Im looking for POPs to become alot more scattered...if that...at least down here
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476. Sophmom
11:16 AM EST on November 26, 2007
Pat, that's an amazing story. I'd never heard of it. I'm off to learn more!
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475. BajaALemt
10:12 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Florida Vis
Gulf RGB
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474. flaboyinga
11:14 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Lake, I remember that one now. I don't think I have it tho. (I have about 750 to 775 LP's. The house will probably sink from the weight someday.) lol
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473. flaboyinga
11:08 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Baja, that was an odd system last night. Usually the track almost due east from the delta on over to the Atlantic and tear us and J'ville up a bit.I keep a bunch of flashlights and a few candles around the house.lol
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472. LakeShadow
4:10 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Dr. John put that album out in 1974 and the name of the song is the namesake of the festival. Thank you google! learn something new everyday...now I gotta check it out!
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471. MisterPerfect
3:59 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Median Salary by Employer Type - Job: Weather Forecaster (United States)

Median Salary by Industry - Job: Weather Forecaster (United States)

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470. Bigguy675
4:10 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Are any of the weather models forecasting any cold fronts marching through Florida soon?
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469. LakeShadow
4:07 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
I dont know about that, flaboyinga... But Bonnaroo is a phenomenon... A magical place filled with the best music possible!
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468. BajaALemt
10:03 AM CST on November 26, 2007
flaboy? Quiet as it's kept...I was LOOKING for a flamingo before I found the egret!! *laffs*

I was watching that one lightning site over in Niceville until about 2:30 this morning. Storms looked to be pretty intense over there then. Woke up this morning to not much of a squall line. Right now, neither NexStorm or WeatherTAP is picking up any more lightning south or west of the line
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467. flaboyinga
11:06 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Lake, didn't someone put out a record called Desatively Bonnaroo?
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466. LakeShadow
4:03 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Flaboyinga, its Bob Wier and Warren Haynes at Bonnaroo 2007... Bobby is from the Greatful Dead and Warren is currently playing with his band Govt Mule in this shot. (Hes also in the Alman Bros)
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465. flaboyinga
11:01 AM EST am 26. November 2007
LakeS, who is the band in the avatar.
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464. LakeShadow
3:59 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
cool pat, thanks! You always have the best posts! :o)
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463. flaboyinga
10:55 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Baja, I was just wondering how bad the peak of the system got during the night. By the way, is a pink flamingo gonna show up in the future?
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462. BajaALemt
9:53 AM CST on November 26, 2007
LOL, flaboy. Well, not alot goin on down here either other than a little bit of rain and a t'storm off to my east at TAFB
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461. flaboyinga
10:51 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Pat, how many posts are you up to now? I think google had you up to 35,000 last month.
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460. Patrap
9:43 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Venezuela's Everlasting Storm

The mysterious "Rempago del Catatumbo" (Catatumbo lightning) is a unique natural phenomenon in the world. Located on the mouth of the Catatumbo river at Lake Maracaibo (Venezuela), the phenomenon is a cloud-to-cloud lightning that forms a voltage arc more than five kilometre high during 140 to 160 nights a year, 10 hours a night, and as many as 280 times an hour. This almost permanent storm occurs over the marshlands where the Catatumbo River feeds into Lake Maracaibo and it is considered the greatest single generator of ozone in the planet, judging from the intensity of the cloud-to-cloud discharge and great frequency. The area sees an estimated 1,176,000 electrical discharges per year, with an intensity of up to 400,000 amperes, and visible up to 400 km away. This is the reason why the storm is also known as the Maracaibo Beacon as light has been used for navigation by ships for ages.

The collision with the winds coming from the Andes Mountains causes the storms and associated lightning, a result of electrical discharges through ionised gases, specifically the methane created by the decomposition of organic matter in the marshes. Being lighter than air, the gas rises up to the clouds, feeding the storms. Some local environmentalists hope to put the area under the protection of UNESCO, as it is an exceptional phenomenon, the greatest source of its type for regenerating the planet's ozone layer.

Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
459. flaboyinga
10:32 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Baja, I want to thank you for keeping the light and wind show down there in the panhandle. My manger scene is still safe for the moment. How bad did it get where you were at ?
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458. LakeShadow
3:30 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Morning all! Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving!
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457. BajaALemt
9:30 AM CST on November 26, 2007
Good analogy, flaboy
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456. flaboyinga
10:15 AM EST am 26. November 2007
Trying to predict six months in advance the correct outcome of the hurricane season is like trying to predict the driving records of your kids. My son was expected to roll at least one vehicle, he hasn't, My youngest girl was expected to be fairly cautious, rolled one two full revs, and the older girl who was expected to be the most careful one, rolled one 6 full revs. And these events if they had been forecast would have included the loss of at least one of them, and by the Grace of God they all survived with fairly minor injuries. Now take the difference in what we know about our family, vehicles and road conditions and compare that to how little (overall) we know about our atmosphere,etc. and try to be even 90% accurate and it doesn't seen very likely to reach that goal.IMHO
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
455. MisterPerfect
2:57 PM GMT on November 26, 2007
Hurricane predictions miss the mark


Two years ago, way under. Last year, way over. This year, still not right.

It's been a stormy few years for William Gray, Philip Klotzbach and other scientists who predict total hurricane activity before each season begins, which raises fundamental questions as the 2007 season draws to an end on Friday:

Why do they bother? And given the errors -- which can undermine faith in the entire hurricane warning system -- are these full-season forecasts doing more harm than good?

''The seasonal hurricane forecasters certainly have a lot of explaining to do,'' said Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center.

''The last couple of years have humbled the seasonal hurricane forecasters and pointed out that we have a lot more to learn before we can do accurate seasonal forecasts,'' he said.

The numbers provide abundant support for those statements.

Just before the season started on June 1, the nationally prominent Gray-Klotzbach team at Colorado State University predicted that 17 named storms would grow into nine hurricanes, five of which would be particularly intense, with winds above 110 mph.

A different team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted 13 to 17 named storms, seven to 10 hurricanes and three to five intense hurricanes.

The actual results for the 2007 season: 14 named storms, five hurricanes, two intense hurricanes.

That turned a season predicted to be extremely active into one that was about average in number of storms and well below average in total intensity.

Even mid-season corrections issued by both teams in August -- somewhat akin to changing your prediction about a baseball game during the fifth inning -- proved wrong.

Their pre-season predictions in 2005 and 2006 were even worse.

The teams defend their forecasts, saying they are based on the best science available, were closer to the mark in prior years and serve an important public service.

''The seasonal forecasts are quite good,'' said Gerry Bell, NOAA's lead seasonal forecaster. ``Last year, we over-predicted and this year we over-predicted, but our track record, I think, is excellent.''

Klotzbach, who now is the lead forecaster of the Colorado State team created more than two decades ago, said long-range predictions satisfy the public's ``inherent curiosity.''

Both teams employ what they call ''climate signals'' -- a variety of ocean and atmospheric conditions -- along with historical records to produce their forecasts.

''Seasonal forecasts are meant to provide people with the best information possible about how active or inactive the coming season is likely to be,'' Klotzbach said.

Mayfield and virtually all hurricane researchers and forecasters, some of whom were skeptical years ago, now support the issuing of full-season predictions.

But many openly share concerns about the current system, focusing in particular on NOAA's tendency to subtly link the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County to the seasonal forecasts produced by Bell's team, which is based in Maryland.

In fact, it is important to emphasize the distinction between the six-month seasonal forecasts and the real-time forecasts of an actual hurricane or other tropical system, which are called ``operational forecasts.''

Several researchers at the hurricane center worked with Gray and contribute to the data collected by Bell's team, but the center's real-time forecasters play no substantive role in the full-season predictions and are not responsible for them.


Many of them worry, however, that substantial errors in those full-season predictions can undermine faith in their generally accurate forecasts of actual storms.

They note that NOAA, parent agency of the hurricane center and Bell's team, often releases Bell's predictions during pre-season news conferences conducted at the hurricane center.

During other years, the hurricane center's director is ordered to participate in the pre-season news conference, wherever it might be held.

''NOAA has been using the good name of the National Hurricane Center, at least to some extent, to help promote the seasonal product and that's not the mission of operational hurricane forecasters,'' Mayfield said.

''In some areas, hurricane forecasters are losing credibility even though they are not the lead on this -- and that's always a concern,'' he said. ``We don't want the credit for the seasonal forecasts.''

Bell said the differences between the two groups should be clear to the public by now. He said South Floridians and other residents of the hurricane zone should never disregard real-time forecasts, especially based on a misconception about the full-season predictions.

''There's no basis for those kinds of comments,'' Bell said, ``especially if they're made by people who don't know what they're talking about.''

Another concern focuses on the hyperactivity of the Gray-Klotzbach team, which issues not one, not two, but six forecasts before and during the season.

The first arrives in early December, forecasting the outcome of a hurricane season that doesn't begin for six months. Maintaining the baseball comparison, that would be like predicting -- this past October -- the Marlins' precise win-loss record in 2008.

''If Gray were honest, he would say they have no skill in making predictions that far in advance,'' said Jeff Masters, a former NOAA hurricane researcher who now serves as chief meteorologist of the Weather Underground. ``It's just an interesting mental exercise.''

Nevertheless, Masters also favors the issuing of seasonal forecasts.

''If you put good science in the hands of people, that's always a benefit,'' he said.

''But they should do a better job of educating the public about the uncertainty involved,'' Masters added. ``And they have to keep underscoring that you have to be prepared in any given year, whatever the forecast.''

That raises another issue.

Virtually everyone involved in the system agrees that seasonal forecasts provide opportunities to remind the public that it must prepare for the worst -- and that certainly works during the current period of generally heightened hurricane activity.

But what happens the next time the data suggest a comparatively mild season? How will the scientists handle that and might that information encourage people to let down their guard?


The leaders of both teams say they are scientists and will go where the science takes them, regardless of where that might be.

''We believe, and I'm sure NOAA would agree, that people should not relax or pay less attention if we forecast an inactive season,'' Klotzbach said. ``Obviously, storms can make landfall and do major damage in inactive years. Just look at Hurricane Andrew in 1992 as an example of this.''

NOAA does agree.

''People have the right to know if we think it will be an above normal or below normal season,'' Bell said.

''But we always, always, impress on people that we cannot, on seasonal time scales, predict if a given locality is going to get hit, so they have to be ready,'' he said.

And what about the recent tendency to over-predict seasonal activity?

''Forecast activity was too high,'' Bell said. ``But gosh darn it, that's a good thing. We'll take it.''

Audio--NHC Director Ed Rappaport looks back at the 2007 season

Audio-- Max Mayfield discusses his concerns about long-term predictions
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