Hurricane forecasting has come a long way since Ken Graham worked the night shift on the Gulf Coast, when warnings about killer storms like Hurricane Andrew came only three days in advance.
Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, started his career with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1992 after working as a broadcast meteorlogist. Last year, he was named director just two months before the start of the season that produced powerful storms including Michael and Florence and became the third above-average season in a row.
The following is an interview with Graham, lightly edited for clarity, during the Governor's Huricane Conference in West Palm Beach earlier this month.
More information about hurricanes and how to prepare for the season starting June 1 can be found here.
WLRN: Are there any changes that we can expect this year in terms of forecasting, and the forecasting tools that you have?
GRAHAM: We have brand new storm surge watch and warning [advisories] that extend to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. We're also experimenting with a longer forecasts....It's one of the bigger requests that we get. People want more time on the timeline, and we're working towards that goal.
Will that be rolled out this year? Or is that something you're still testing internally before you roll it out?
We're testing internally, because it's not easy. Because you know, you look at Hurricane Florence, for example. The six- and seven-day forecast turned Florence out to sea. We know that didn't happen. So how do you show those errors on a map or try to describe those errors so people don't let their guard down? So that's what we're trying to look at. The [storm surge] watches and warnings for Puerto Rico and other the islands in the Caribbean, that's on for this year.
And as far as extending the storm surge forecast to Puerto Rico and other islands, is that just a matter of mapping the coast and being able to crunch the models?
Yeah, the biggest thing is mapping the coast. And it's not only that, but symmetry. You have to know that the depth of the ocean. Is it a gentle slope, that can produce more storm surge than a steep slope?[The actual ocean floor] makes a big difference. Not only that, but the elevation data, too. So you have to have tons of data before we can even think about looking at any sort of mapping.
Let me ask you about intensity forecast, because that comes up every year....Just recently, Michael was upgraded from a Cat 4 to a Cat 5.
The rapid intensification is such a tough forecast for us. And we've done so much in the way of [improving] track forecast. And we're really getting very good with the track forecast. [But] intensity is still tough. There's some things we don't know....We're starting to understand the parameters of the ocean. So we talked about measuring the temperature of the ocean. We do that at the surface. [But] what's going on underneath 100 feet down, maybe even more? So it's the actual heat content of the ocean. We need to get that modeled and into the models....And how about the storm structure? Florence had an eye wall replacement and never recovered. Can we forecast that? That's something that we [need] to look into in the future. So intensification, there's so much room to improve. And we're going to apply a lot of science to that.
What are some of the tools that are helping you with that? I know you use satellites a lot. There was some fear that some of the satellite programs might get funding cut. I don't think that happened....But what are some of those tools that would help you, for example, get that deeper ocean temperature?
I think more observation. So part of it is satellites. What a huge advancement. I mean, there's so much data that we're still getting used to. So that's helping us with the storm structure. The other one is, you know, ocean sensors. We need more sensors, whether they're from the satellites, or actually in the ocean. We need to figure out ways to get those observations into the modeling. Because if you think about it, a model is only as good as [the information] on initial conditions. So we need to understand those initial conditions to make sure we get that into the model. And look, the better the model, the better forecast that we can give everybody and that leads to better decisions and ultimately, saving lives.
And so let me ask you, how long have you been doing this?
Well, 25 years in the weather service and, in the last 10 years, in New Orleans, where we saw hurricanes and floods and the oil spill. So one year in my current position as the hurricane center director. So yeah, the 2010 season was the first year here for me in Miami at the hurricane center. And it was a busy season.
Over that period of time, how have you seen things change?
It's amazing. I mean, you think about the equipment that we were using 25 years ago. I mean, just giant, loud machines that you hugged on the midnight shift to keep warm....So the modeling part of this, the data, the satellite, we have more information than we've ever had in the past. And as a result, you've seen the forecast get better.
Finally, what do you want people to know going into the season?
Know your risk. You know we always talk about have a plan. What got me thinking was after I mived from New Orleans to Miami, I had to rewrite my plan. Why did I do that? My risk changed. So number one, know your risk. If you're on the coast, if you're on a barrier island, you know it's a storm surge risk. You've got to get out. Simple as that. When there's a hurricane threat, you know, the storm surge can get you. If you're inland, lots of trees, that type of situation, you know, there's a risk for the wind and the trees falling in your home. Know the risk. With that risk, you can write your plan.