Nor has technology created major changes in the way storms are forecast, according to scientists, at least since the advent of Doppler radar and integrated models for hurricane forecasting. But a great deal of work has gone into making those models better.
The weather service is rolling out changes to Doppler radar called dual-polarization, which distinguishes between hail and rain. It’s also testing phase array radar, used by the U.S. Navy, to see if it improves tornado forecasting. Traditional radar involves a dish that spins, but phased array radar uses panels that measure atmospheric volumes in about one-fifth the time as current radar, said Harold Brooks, senior scientist at the weather service’s forecast research and development division in Norman, Okla.
Phase array radar might make it easier to forecast tornadoes a week or two in advance, as can happen with hurricanes, or even make it possible for communities to have tornado days, like wintry areas have snow days, said Brooks. Phase array also could consolidate multiple radar systems — such as those used for air traffic, defense and weather — into one.
Growth in computer power alone is improving hurricane forecasting, and models are improving in their ability to predict the paths of storms. Progress is slower at predicting intensity of the storms, which is driven by ocean temperatures. In particular, the models don’t do a good job predicting whether hurricanes will go through rapid increases or decreases in force.
That uncertainty can weaken public attentiveness and ultimately cost money, said George R. Halliwell Jr., a research oceanographer at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami. Halliwell has developed a model, currently in testing, that he hopes will help address the issue.
The difference between a Category 1 and Category 3 hurricane is substantial. And while a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf Coast should trigger evacuations, if such a storm degrades to a Category 1 a few hours later, said Halliwell, “people just wasted a lot of money” evacuating.
Even with advances in technology, forecasters, scientists and emergency officials still face a dual challenge: When storms and disasters loom, they must convince a sometimes skeptical public of possible danger. Even before that, they must coax people — like Caitria O’Neill before the tornado hit her town in Massachusetts — to prepare for the unthinkable.