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Field Trip to the National Hurricane Center

posted on Sunday, June 27th, 2010 at 3:08 pm
Senior Hurricane Specialist Dr. Lixion Avila Studies Tropical Storm Alex

Senior Hurricane Specialist Dr. Lixion Avila Studies Tropical Storm Alex

Field trip day! About 100 or so television  meteorologists, including Bob Breck, my fiance Jonathan Myers and I, boarded a bus to the National Hurricane Center in Miami yesterday.

Bob Breck and Dawn Brown, FOX 8 New Orleans, National Hurricane Center

Bob Breck and Dawn Brown, FOX 8 New Orleans, National Hurricane Center

It was exciting for two reasons. One, I’ve never been there. And, two, there was a tropical storm in the Caribbean Sea. Alex doesn’t look like it will be much of a threat to New Orleans when it reemerges in the Bay of Campeche in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico. But, we don’t take anything for granted until a tropical system has dissipated. This was going to give me a chance to discuss the storm with the experts at the hurricane center.

When you enter the NHC, there’s a big media room to brief reporters during hurricane season. They now have the hurricane specialists separated from the media by glass walls. I can’t imagine it before they put in the glass. The hurricane specialists are trying to study all this satellite and storm data, and they have these cameras over their shoulder, studying them! Now, only one or two cameras are allowed in the media room during a land-falling hurricane.

National Hurricane Center

National Hurricane Center

Behind the glass walls, hurricane specialists track tropical disturbances in both the East Pacific and Atlantic Ocean basins. Today there were 3 tropical cyclones. Hurricane Darby and Celia in the East Pacific and Tropical Storm Alex in the Atlantic.

Senior Hurricane Specialist Dr. Lixion Avila was the meteorologist tracking Alex. A Cuban native, he was issuing watches and warnings for Mexico, Belize and Honduras, the countries affected by the storm on Saturday.

There were 3 other meteorologists forecasting marine advisories for shipping in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins. What an enormous area to cover. The hurricane center also has storm surge specialists, researchers, etc. All in all, they don’t have a huge staff. The hurricane specialists appear to be a tight knit group.  It makes sense since they have to work closely together over a period of days while they are watching a storm.

I’ll add a little bit more about my visit to the Hurricane Research Division when I update this tomorrow.

Here’s the latest track forecast for Alex. -Dawn Brown

Alex 5-Day Forecast, Image: NOAA

Alex 5-Day Forecast, Image: NOAA

Alex and the Oil Spill

posted on Saturday, June 26th, 2010 at 6:16 am

Tropical Storm Alex forms off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Infrared Satellite, TS Alex, Image: NOAA

Infrared Satellite, TS Alex, Image: NOAA

The current track takes Alex toward the Yucatan, weakening as it crosses the peninsula. Hurricane forecasters expect it to strengthen once again in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico, moving toward the south Texas coastline before possibly curving toward the west-southwest.

Official Forecast Track, Tropical Storm Alex

Official Forecast Track, Tropical Storm Alex

Most of the computer models agree on this forecast track. Hurricane specialists from the National Hurricane Center presented their post-season analysis of the 2009 Atlantic Hurricane Season at a meteorological conference in Miami this week. During their presentation, they announced the European Model, or the ECMWF, has delivered the most successful track forecast the past few years. That model takes Alex toward the southwestern Gulf of Mexico toward central Mexico. The ECMWF isn’t plotted on most computer model tracking maps, if you follow those.

You can find the link to the European model in my link to tracking hurricanes, but it’s hard to read for most people. Keep in mind that the hurricane specialists know which models are giving the best performance when they issue their track forecast, so you can be confident that when you are looking at the 5-day forecast from the National Hurricane Center, that is the most accurate information available.

This past week, two of the government models, the HWRF and the GFDL, were taking the disturbance in the Caribbean to the northern Gulf of Mexico. You can’t really follow computer models for tropical disturbances until there is a tropical depression, or a center of circulation. It’s hard to explain, but the mathematical models are set up to take a storm that has already formed and track it. They do a pretty good job of that. But, until a low, or depression has formed, you can’t rely on all those “spaghetti plots”, as they are familiarly called.

I walked up to Bill Read, the Director of the National Hurricane Center, and I said, “Hi, Mr. Read, I’m Dawn Brown from FOX 8 New Orleans. What’s up with the  HWRF?”

Well, he smiled and said, “We initialized the model with a fake storm…, ” to try and give people battling the oil spill an idea of where Alex might go if it formed. Basically, the hurricane specialists had to input some numbers into the storm, such as maximum winds, etc., to run the model, because once again, these models are not designed to work unless there is a storm.

This is why last week, when most of the models were taking the tropical disturbance toward the west, the HWRF and GFDL were headed straight north. Now those two models are more in line with the other computer models and the official track from the National Hurricane Center reflects that.

Does that mean workers near the oil spill need not worry? No. We still have to watch Alex cross the Yucatan and see how it fares in the southwestern Gulf in the beginning of next week.

By the way, I really like Bill Read. Straight shooter, very smart, great communicator.

-Dawn Brown

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