P!Nterview: Stormpulse – tracking the season’s storm with cutting-edge technology

Stormpulse has become a well-known name in hurricane-watching circles, and has become a popular tool for media and other organizations because of its use of cutting-edge, interactive modeling and storm-tracking modules. As the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season neared its end, co-founder Matthew Wensing discussed the website and the notable events from this season.

Q: Can you tell me a little about how you became involved in storm modeling and your goals with the website?
A: My co-founder and I began Stormpulse in 2006, just after two of the busiest hurricane seasons in recorded history. We knew there was an incredible amount of data available, but very little seemed to help the average person easily interact with the data in an intelligent way. Our professional experience was in software and dealing with large amounts of information, which meant this challenge of aggregating and presenting vast amounts of weather data was a natural fit. Our goal is to continually increase the benefit people receive from looking at our weather displays. Knowing where a storm is, where it’s going, and who or what is in harm’s way should become more and more effortless.

Q: Is severe weather a career-long interest for you? When did you start keeping track of storms?
A: My interest in severe weather began as it does for many natives of South Florida – with real-life concerns every summer! Growing up on the peninsula with an avid storm tracker for a father, tracking tropical weather became a pastime at an early age. The site is just the outworking of that need to track storms, which extends to millions of others.

Q: Your storm maps have become popular, and as you note on your website they are used by several news and business outlets, including the Washington Post, CNN and Boeing. What is the utility of such graphic tools in your mind, and why have they become so popular?
A: There are hundreds of weather tools available these days, and each typically falls into one of two categories: those that provide a lot of raw information but require a measurable amount of mapping skills or weather knowledge to interpret, and those that require very little understanding of the weather, but fail to provide key insights. Neither of these is ideal. Organizations need to spread weather awareness across members without any weather expertise without sacrificing vital insights into threats, timing and vulnerabilities. The Stormpulse map can be interpreted with very little effort or weather expertise. This makes it very effective when presenting to an audience that needs real weather intelligence but doesn’t have a weather background. We call it “point and click weather intelligence.” It’s incredibly easy.

Q: The predicted Atlantic storm season, with 8 to 14 hurricanes predicted, largely was correct, though many of these storms barely made landfall. How do you feel the season compared to the predictions?
A: Truthfully, the season compared very well to several predictions. Colorado State was almost perfect. Unfortunately it’s a very thankless job, because the general public only remembers the storms that make landfall, which is understandable. And much of the media tends to latch on to every storm and amplify its importance beyond what’s reasonable. And some members of the media, intentions aside, have blurred the line between themselves and the scientific community. So you have these disconnects between what the public cares about (landfalls), what the media promotes (everything), and what the true academics are forecasting (raw numbers). I think forecasting will continue to get a bad rap as long as those aren’t in alignment.

Q: This season also had some extremes – a long stretch of consecutive storms and the earliest hurricane since the mid-1990s. What are the lessons of these events – are storms becoming less predictable?
A: I think the numbers of storms we can expect to see, and the path the storms take once spawned, is becoming more predictable. But I think the timing of these storms’ birth, strengthening and demise remains mysterious. That said, I think what you’re observing isn’t so much storms becoming less predictable but rather men going out on more limbs trying to predict more (because there’s a huge demand for such predictions as the world accelerates). So as more men go out on more limbs, you’re going to see more people flop to the ground. But at the core I think we’re improving. Stormpulse has some ideas for improving intensity forecasting, for example. I think the web still hasn’t changed forecasting the way it should. We’d like to be the vanguard of that.

Q: From your perspective, what is the takeaway from the events of this season?
A: Despite the best efforts of emergency preparedness advocates, each person’s takeaway each year is highly subjective and depends on what they did or didn’t experience. For me, as someone watching each and every storm, I’ve often felt like things are on a razor’s edge. I’ve heard from folks affected by this year’s storms, and it’s palpable, but then I imagine what if things had gone ever so slightly different? We were a few well-timed troughs and steering currents away from a repeat of 2005 in terms of devastation. That’s not meant to incite fear, but rather appreciation. We don’t realize what we have until it’s taken away.