P!Nterview: A Lot to Say About a Quiet Season

P!Nterview: A Lot to Say About a Quiet Season

The Weather Channel’s tropical storm expert, meteorologist, Steve Lyons, sums up this year’s storm season and shares his preparedness philosophy.

Q: Climatologists have referred to the 2009 storm season as less active than normal. Is this a fair characterization? What else can you say about this year’s tropical storms and hurricanes?

A: Yes, this was a quiet year, not only from the standpoint of the Atlantic Basin as a whole, but also for what people remember. Only two rather weak tropical storms impacted the United States (US) coastline, Claudette in August and Ida in November and neither did much damage. There were no US hurricanes, and the season as a whole was slow relative to seasonal outlooks and compared to recent, severely damaging hurricane season years like:

2008 IKE & GUSTAV

2005 DENNIS, KATRINA, RITA AND WILMA

2004 CHARLEY, FRANCES, IVAN AND JEANNE

2009 A big break for the coastal US

Q: Has weather forecasting improved or changed in the past year?

A: There has not been a big improvement in forecasting this year. Track errors were a little lower, but mostly because the forecasts were easier this year. Over the past 15 years, we have seen great improvements in hurricane track forecasts. The big problem remains forecasting a hurricane’s intensity. There has been little improvement on that front for many years now. Research is being done to try to improve intensity forecasts, but due to the many scales of atmospheric motion involved, this is a tough problem, especially since we have a very poor sampling of weather over open oceans. Satellites have improved weather sampling over the oceans in the past 15 years, but we need more satellite information from the open ocean to get the intensity forecast to improve. Models cannot do this alone!

Q: What is your preparedness philosophy or how do you see your role in the storm preparedness movement?

A: I try to forecast the impacts from the hurricane and focus on them. Each hurricane leaves its own unique damage “footprint”, with five unique toes: wind damage, wave damage, rainfall damage, coastal flooding damage, and tornado damage. Improving these forecasts will save lives and help convince people to prepare and evacuate when they need to. If you leave it up to a resident to try to figure out what a 100 mph hurricane of large size moving at 20 mph towards them will do, most can only guess. They don’t need to do that if I give them the expected hurricane damage footprint, which requires models to do so!

Q: What advancements or technological innovations in storm forecasting are meteorologists most excited about?

A: Well, new models are continually developed, the “HWRF” or Hurricane Weather Research and Forecast model is one that continues to improve. Unfortunately, this year we lost the scatterometer satellite. That was a big blow to efforts to identify initial disturbances and the radii of winds around storms and hurricanes. The scatterometer satellite, which we called “QuickSCAT”, measured surface winds over the global oceans by emitting energy pulses and gathering their scattered signal from the ocean surface . It was a hugely successful satellite. Launched into space in 1999, QuikSCAT was expected to last two years. It finally died in late 2009, outlasting its lifetime by at least 7-8 years. Unfortunately, replacement satellites are not expected until around 2016 (hopefully sooner)! Until then, hurricane forecasters are left without this powerful tool, but will have cloud-drift wind estimates from more conventional satellite imagery, and of course Hurricane Hunter winds in very tiny areas in and around the hurricane.

Q: What are the major events that have occurred within the meteorological community this year?

Some private, and non-profit groups like FLASH (Federal Alliance for Safe Homes), continue to work on making the coastline more hurricane resistant. This is a huge problem now- a growing population in harm’s way. Insurance companies know that homebuilders can now make hurricane-wind proof homes, we just need to build more of them. Water damage is always a problem and homes and their contents are always vulnerable to it. Getting states, counties and cities to develop areas that are NOT likely to see huge losses in a hurricane remains a long-term goal!