NOAA Hedges Bets on Hurricane Forecast

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the 2008 "hurricane season" may be above normal in terms of the number and strength of named storms. But more than in the past, the agency is acknowledging that precise estimates are difficult.

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It's nearly hurricane season in the Atlantic and that means it's time for hurricane predictions. Government scientists are forecasting more than the usual number of storms, but they're also doing something different this year. They're downplaying the exact number of hurricanes they expect.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON: The government's cautious approach comes after two consecutive years in which hurricane seasons didn't quite live up to their hype. In 2006, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called for eight to 10 hurricanes. They only got five.

Last year's prediction was closer, but still high. So this year scientists at NOAA are hedging their bets. Jerry Bell is in charge of seasonal forecasts.

Mr. JERRY BELL (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): We're indicating a 90% chance of a near normal or above normal season. Looks like an above normal season will be most likely with a 65% chance, but there's still a 25% chance of a near normal season.

HAMILTON: The forecast does include some numbers, but with caveats. It's says there is a better than even chance that there will be between six and nine hurricanes. The forecast makes no prediction about whether any of these storms will strike land. If that seems to indicate a fair amount of uncertainty, Bell says it's suppose to.

Mr. BELL: One of our goals this year was to really convey that for a given set of climate patterns you can sometimes see a wide range of activity.

HAMILTON: And this year's climate patterns contain a decidedly mixed message. On the one hand, the Atlantic has been churning out lots of hurricane since the mid 1990s, and many scientists expect that trend to continue for at least another couple of decades. On the other hand, most big hurricane seasons come during La Nina conditions. That's when waters in certain parts of the Pacific are unusually cold. And Bell says that right now the water appears to be getting warmer.

Mr. BELL: La Nina seems to be weakening but it's certainly possible that it's still going to be impacting the atmospheric winds even after it dissipates. And for the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, La Nina favors increased hurricane activity as well.

HAMILTON: Hugh Willoughby of Florida International University says years like this one are tough on forecasters. He should know. He used to be responsible for the seasonal forecasts at NOAA. Willoughby says there's a dirty little secret in the forecasting business.

Mr. HUGH WILLOUGHBY (Florida International University): We don't really know if there are going to be six or seven or eight or 11 or three or 16 hurricanes.

HAMILTON: But he says it's tempting to trot out exact numbers anyway, because they get the public's attention.

Mr. WILLOUGHBY: People love numbers, even when they're meaningless. It conveys an idea of precision and accuracy, that you really know what you're talking about.

HAMILTON: And then people in vulnerable areas are more likely to actually prepare for hurricane season. But if people start to feel they've been mislead by the numbers, they'll ignore them. Willoughby says all the focus on seasonal forecasts sometimes obscures just how good NOAA is at its primary job of protecting people from devastating storms.

Mr. WILLOUGHBY: We've got a really, really good record in terms of loss of life. Your odds of being killed by a hurricane right now or this year are about a hundredth of what they were at the turn of the century.

HAMILTON: Willoughby says that's primarily because once a hurricane has formed, forecasters are extremely good at predicting where it will go.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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