August 30th, 2011
11:23 AM ET

How Irene's forecast missed the mark and why it could happen again

They know they missed it. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami say when it comes to the strength of Hurricane Irene as it approached North Carolina, they know they were off. Way off.

“At least in the guidance we were looking at there was no indication of anything that would cause the storm to weaken. So, we thought we would have a Category 3 at landfall,” said Bill Read, the director of the Hurricane Center. Irene came in at a Category 1, the weakest. Read said there’s good reason they were so far off.

The science of forecasting how strong or weak a storm will become is simply not very good. With Irene, forecasters say they weren’t even as good as their five-year average.

“Every storm comes up with a surprise,” Read said. “In this case it was one where it went downhill. Charlie a few years ago is one that went uphill. Neither case did we see that coming, and that’s my measure of the fact that we have a long way to go.”

Bill Read, of the National Hurricane Center, talks about the difficulty of predicting hurricanes.

Hurricane forecasters say they want to get it right all the time. But if you are going to be wrong, they say it's better to be wrong in weakening storms like Irene.

“I’d say a bigger worry than one weakening at landfall is the ’35 hurricane that came through the Keys," Read said. "Charlie if it’s a little bigger. Audrey in 1957. Get the picture?”

In all of these cases, the storms rapidly intensified as they neared the coastline. By then, it’s too late to order massive evacuations.

CNN's severe weather expert Chad Meyers said when Hurricane Irene smashed into the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the contact weakened the storm.

So, forecasters had the path right, but the impact of landfall changed what the amount of destruction would be in some areas. Wind shear helped knock down velocity, and unexpected dry air sucked some of the power out of the storm.

"It literally knocked the stuffing out of the eye," Myers said. "It never got its mojo back."

Meteorologists measured pressure levels inside the storm that could have allowed it to strengthen back into a Category 3 hurricane, Myers said, but Irene's romp over land in North Carolina prevented the eye wall from spinning into a more destructive storm by the time it arrived in New York.

"It never had that opportunity because North Carolina got in the way, dry air came across over Virginia and Maryland and got in the way, and although this was very low pressure, the reason why we could never let the guard down for New York City ... was because the pressure was low enough that at any time, if this storm decided to get its act together, it could have gone from a 60-70-80 miles per hour storm - it easily could have been a 110 (miles per hour) storm like it was in the Caribbean and like it was in the Bahamas."

Add to that the difficulties of having true accurate model data when it comes to hurricane forecasts.

“Real-time observations, like that collected by NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters, are put into these models to hopefully give a more accurate forecast. We are much more accurate on forecasting severe storms and their behavior for this very reason, the availability of observations," CNN meteorologist and weather producer Sarah Dillingham said. "These storms occur over land, allowing scientists to take measurements within those storms and use that data to run computer models. Think about a hurricane, over water, with no way to collect data except from above.

"Makes it difficult to see what is actually going on, right?"

Dillingham said dropsondes, instruments that are dropped from above and into these storms, are used to collect data inside hurricanes as they fall to the surface.

"This is helpful, but you are also trying to view the data it collected, track where it was in the storm, and at the same time determine what that means from a scientific perspective," she said. "Also, you may think, what about trying to send something up into the storm from below. In a hurricane? Good luck with that."

Dillingham said "the sparsity of real-time observations in tropical systems is what makes it so difficult to produce a more correct intensity forecast, and certainly makes it difficult to improve them."

"The track of these storms depends on atmospheric winds and surrounding storm systems, and we understand these factors much better, giving us a better handle on the 'steering' of these systems," she said. "This makes tracking more accurate overall. Things like RI, or rapid intensification, in tropical cyclones is just not fully understood yet, and until we can obtain that vital observational data within these storms - while they are over open, warm waters - we will struggle to model these kinds of processes.”

For that reason, Dillingham said Read's explanation of why they have trouble making these predictions is spot on.

And that's also why Read says the decisions to evacuate made by emergency managers and state and federal officials was the right one.

In every aspect of the storm except for wind speed, Read says, they got it right.

According to their initial analysis, the track forecast of the storm was 20% better than their five-year average. They do very well at predicting the path of a hurricane.

“We had storm surge flooding all the way up from the Carolinas into New England," Read said. We’ve had tremendous and tragic rainfall flooding. We’ve had loss of life from trees down well inland and the power outages.”

Hurricane forecasters admit their ability to foresee a storm’s strength is not much more today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

According to the Hurricane Center’s initial analysis, “Irene exemplifies the state of the science.” They are pinning their future hopes on programs like the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project. Scientists say they are seeing some promising results. This program uses high-resolution models and enhanced Doppler radars to measure the core of Hurricanes.

Forecasters say that three out of four times you will likely be asked to evacuate and you’ll coming back saying "Why did I leave?"

But that fourth time, if you don’t, Read says, you’ll wish you had.

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Filed under: Flooding • Hurricane Irene • Hurricanes • Weather
soundoff (639 Responses)
  1. cyg

    You had 30+ dead plus record flooding. If you decided to take the ho-hum approach and let everyone ride it out, it could be thousands dead. Either way news and forecasters will be ridiculed, which proves even more how dense Americans are nowdays.

    August 30, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Robert

    India if we are all that how about giving us OUR money and jobs back and you and your country and do everything yourself.

    August 30, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • IndiaRocks

      We dont owe you sh!tt. And your companies outsource jobs only because it benefits them, not because they wanna do us a favor.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      They are not 'our' companies. They are private companies that we do not control. They take on a life of their own that is above any government in the world. The fact they outsource is not a reflection on Americans, or Indians, or anyone else. It is about their desire to increase profits. They will roll right through the rest of the world and leave each country in the same shambles they have left the U.S. So don't gloat too much.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |


      August 30, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • mdubbs

      And because they can pay one of your idiots $2.00 an hour to pretend to speak English on the phone, when the people in our country are at least smart enough to demand more for a salary.

      August 30, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jweller

    Cable news media report what gets the most ratings. If they spend a lot of time on the storm it is because that's what viewers wanted to see.

    I started getting tired of hearing about it simply because this was an incredibly slow moving hurricane that took like two weeks to move along it's track but that doesn't mean it wasn't an important ongoing event.

    August 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  4. atsudo nym

    For those of you thinking that the storm was a dud, perhaps you'd like to turn your eyes inland a little bit. In upstate NY and Vermont this was the storm of record. We set all time high flooding records all over the place, in places where the records go way, way back. If it weren't for a recently ordered retrofit of the NYC reservoir dam at Gilboa, the entire valley of Schoharie Creek might not even be there by now. As it is, it is extensively flooded, thousands of people are homeless, and this is 130 miles inland. The Tea Party types whined a blue streak about another one of those "gubmint mandates" when the dam reconstruction was ordered.

    Granted, we don't have a body count to match Katrina, But that's partly a reflection of the fact that state and local governments in the northeast are less inept than they are in the deep south. And yes, we do that by spending money derived from taxpayers. We got people out of harm's way, and we did it efficiently. Score one for the bureaucrats.

    August 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. RLA

    I believe that what makes people so angry is that the predictions are sold with so much certainty, then poof, it doesn't turn out that way. I get 2 week weather forecasts through our local TV station and they are presented with terms such as accurate weather or weather you can count on, etc...then, as the two weeks pass, the ACTUAL weather is NOTHING like what was forecast. Sure, it's better to be over-warned and over-prepared but the meteorological and media world (media and forecasters) need to ratchet down their efforts to be the "first" to present "THE" definitive forecast and prediction. It makes for good headlines but isn't helping things out that much in people's lives. Warnings and predictions can be presented in a much better manner and get the same desired safety effect... all without the hyped up rhetoric.

    I\We live in Louisiana and,, like many gulf coast residents, we know that when you think you've got your predictions down just right, something's going to change for the better or worse. Americans are so bombarded with the "Monster storm coming right up Central Park" type of cries that of course they're upset when things don't pan out that way. Sure, it's better that the storm fizzled and sure, it is very tragic to have witnessed or been a part of all the damage that even a Cat 1 storm can cause. But the hype needs to end and realistic forecasting presented. Then things may find the proper balance between anger and panic, over and under reacting. By the guys, stop standing out in the ocean or 90mph winds, or as close to a tornado as you can when the storm is coming in. That serves no real purpose than to get your network attention and to one-up the other guy.

    August 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Kellie in Fort Worth

    See, now here's where I have to call BS – I'm not a meteorologist, I just play one in my imagination. And watching Irene's radar signature in the day or so after she brushed by Florida, I could tell that she wasn't going to get stronger – it was just obvious. Her entire west flank was over land, drawing from onshore, and that was going to hinder development. I was frankly surprised she stayed together enough to still be a hurricane at all after the initial landfall, because she was west-heavy and the west was all over land. After she left the Carribbean she was never going to ramp it up again because she was too close to the US . If she'd come from further out, from say Bermuda, where the entire storm could have gathered the moisture energy from the sea, then yeah, she'd have been stronger. I was watching all the hype on how strong she was going to be knowing they were getting it wrong and wondering if it was media driven or if the forecasters just weren't paying attention. I guess it was both.

    August 30, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • W. Ellington

      I am not sure, but I do not think they have ever had a hurricane come directly from Bermuda to the east coast. if there was, it must have been a rare breed indeed. Plus the ocean currents between there and the east coast are some what colder are they not? This would seriously hinder any dramatic development of a hurricane making it most likely very weak.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Oh I see, so basically your saying your an uneducated idiot but we should listen to you instead?

      August 30, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Janet Goodell

      By your analysis, which isn't bad, you would have underestimated it. That would probably be worse for the people involved. I still say they did a good job. I'm not a meteorologist either, but am a scientists.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • mkjp

      you do realize that there were storm related deaths in new england, not to mention all the flooding that is ruining people's homes? obviously asking people to evacuate in these flooded out areas was absolutely the right call. you know nothing about weather science, so stop pretending that you do. you cannot look at a single radar snapshot in time of a hurricane and know for sure what it will and will not do. if you want to be a meteorologist for real, put your money where your mouth is and go study the science in college and grad school.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Weatherman22

      As a meteorology grad student, I can tell you that your logic is off. It may seem that way, but a hurricane can ride over land and still remain strong. The inflow of warm air (one energy source) occurs on the Southeast side of the storm and the outflow of cold air (the exhaust) is expelled on the Northwest side (all of this for a hurricane in the Northern Hemisphere). Because of this, the entire left side of the storm can be on top of land and it can still strengthen from the water on the right side.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      You know Kellie ... yes you are very wise and smart, so smart, you know better than the pro who have degrees in math and physics and meteorology and you can do better than the most sophisticated computer, cause you are so f*****ing smart.
      And yet, something tells me I will be better off not trusting you with telling me if or not the next Hurricane will be strong or not. I wonder what it is that makes me feel like I rather trust the professionals rather than your super smart opinion .. what do you think is it?

      August 30, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • clay

      "I wonder what it is that makes me feel like I rather trust the professionals rather than your super smart opinion "

      LOL you're the same guy that pays $120 to your car dealer for an oil change because they are "professionals". Fact is these professionals you speak of are wrong 80% of the time. The only weather forecast you can trust the the one for the next 12 hours.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aimer

      I live in the coastal area of South Carolina.. That storm was never situated "west" over land between Florida and North Carolina. It was hundreds of miles off shore for quite some time. Forecasters thought its being over the warm waters of the gulf stream could increase its strength before hitting NC, and possibly again after moving up the coast north of NC. These things didn't happen, for reasons stated in the article. But the storm was NOT smaller and less destructive than predicted because of it being over land after passing Florida, as you say.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. franticsky

    Weather men and politicans are paid to lie and are the only ones to keep their job despite poor performance and repated gaffes

    August 30, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • JRRinAtlanta

      What did they lie about? If you haven't noticed, The coast line got hit by a hurricane, and people died.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Janet Goodell

      I can't believe you think weathermen lie. There is no motive for it. People who are disingenuous themselves often think all other people must be, too.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      you instead have no job already ... I wonder why

      August 30, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. edvhou812

    Weird. I read a table that said it would be a Category 1 or 2. So someone else thought it would be a Cat 3, but were wrong. :\

    August 30, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tim

      IIrene was a Cat 3 at one point in the Bahamas.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. wes

    That's why they used to name Hurricanes only after women....because they are very unpredictable....even in 2011. As far as the media's all about DRAMA and RATINGS....nothing more, nothing's the bottom line. When you've spent countless dollars sending reporters and camera crews into the field and the storm fizzles YOU STILL HAVE TO DELIVER DRAMA.....even if you have to manufacture it (FOX is notorious for this). You MUST use big words like "slammed" and terms like "Ferosious Winds" and "Frightening Flooding Rains" can't just report "Hurricane Irene brings rain and wind to the East Coast" must report "Global Killer Hurricane Irene SLAMMED into the Eastern Seaboad today bringing with it FEROSIOUS WINDS and FRIGHTENING FLOODING RAINS as it march RELENTLESSLY up the East Coast SLAMMING Vermont with POWERFUL RAINS and causing power outtages to MILLIONS!"

    August 30, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ava

    Humans have no control over weather, just report it.

    August 30, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Billy

    Editors should be more careful how they word headlines. Ask the good folks in Eastern North Carolina if Irene missed her mark.

    August 30, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • ThisGirl

      Irene didn't miss her mark-that's not what this story is about. It was just significantly less severe than other storms the East Coast has seen. It came in at a Cat 1 and didn't stay long. Yea – it caused some damage and many of those deaths were related to people being foolish – but nothing like the havoc that's been wreaked upon the coast in years past.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. T-MAN

    @IndiaRocks: I hope you don't live in America. If you do... just leave, we have enough haters.

    August 30, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • IndiaRocks

      I've never been to America and never will. Your society is fuked_up – full of perverted b@$tards.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • JRRinAtlanta

      Interesting, I work with a lot of people that moved to the states from India, and they say they would never wan to to live in that cesspool ever again.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • IndiaRocks

      Those are probably perverts who enjoy the perverted American filth of a society. They dont wanna come to India because we dont tolerate perverts.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  13. DT

    A large part of the over-hype for Irene has to do with Katrina and the governments (local, state, and federal) poor handling of that storm – not only after the storm, but the preparations made (or rather lack of them) before the storm ever made landfall. At this point, all politicians and political agencies would rather err on the side of caution and over-react to a coming hurricane rather then have the public blame them again for not being prepared.

    August 30, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Janet Goodell

      They learned a lot. Using experience to improve response is not a bad thing...

      August 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  14. JCK

    Sounds funny coming from one who lives in a country that still supports a caste system .... India is once again on the verge of a famine .. would it be OK with you if America decides to keep its food and monetary aid at home this time and let you wing it on your ow?. Did you finally get fired from your Customer Support job ?

    August 30, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • IndiaRocks

      Says a nasty American who employs black slaves to work in the cotton fields.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmazedinFL

      These are exactly the sort of questions that IndiaRocks WON'T respond to. It's a lot easier to shoot your mouth off than it is to support your convictions through actual actions.

      August 30, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |

    umm. This storm devistated connecticut. Is anyone looking north of NY. ConnectiWHAT?!? How about all the flooding in upper NY and NH. CNN you missed the mark not he weatherpeople

    August 30, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
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