No federal government agency is more important to Americans than the National Hurricane Center (NHC). But if you need a good example of its not-so-exemplary record in forecasting over the years, take a look at the history of Hurricane Joaquin, which punctuated the news last week. The slow-moving storm in the vicinity of the Bahamas mushroomed from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane in a few days, with a red alert going out last Wednesday afternoon that the cone of likely landfall included the East Coast of the United States, most likely the Carolinas and the Middle Atlantic States.
The spaghetti computer models used by the NHC converged on the Atlantic coastline, including the prestigious and often reliable American or GFS (Global Forecasting System), but there was a notable exception. The European model, ECMWF (European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting), predicted that Joaquin would head out to open sea. And the across-the-Atlantic model-makers stood by their lone stance. No matter. The NHC stood by its assessment. So after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, relying on the NHC advisory, officially declared a state of emergency to prepare for the storm, as did the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
By Thursday morning, the landfall cone of the NHC had moved decidedly east, putting only Long Island and New England in the predicted areas. By the 5 p.m. NHC advisory, the landfall cone was virtually in agreement with the European model of a sea-bound storm, with the real threat to the U.S. coastline an unrelated but powerful system generating massive rainfall and wave action.
The problem with the NHC is twofold. First, if one of its models is diametrically opposed to another, it gives a consensus forecast somewhere between the two extremes. So in the instance of Hurricane Joaquin, the European model was on the far eastern side of the prediction, some others on the western extremity, putting the nation’s capital as the compromised center that wasn’t substantiated by obvious, let alone scientific, logic.
Second, the agency is part of a bureaucratic maze that puts its dough on people and reorganization rather than effective, state-of-the-art computers. As of April 1, another reorganization went into effect for the National Weather Service, with layers of administration that baffle the reader. When I wrote about the NHC in 2007 as a Florida resident exasperated over the agency’s prediction inadequacies, the NHC was part of the National Weather Service’s Tropical Prediction Center responsible for tracking storms. But the NHC also had its own specialized unit, the Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch (formerly the Tropical Satellite Analysis and Forecast Unit), responsible for forecasting on the high seas. Now the NHC is under the National Centers for Environmental Prediction. And all this litany of agencies is under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is inappropriately part of the Department of Commerce.
And if you really want to induce a migraine headache, try accessing information about coming storms by logging on to Noaa.gov, a website conspicuous for its user-unfriendliness.
It wasn’t always this way. A hurricane warning division under the National Weather Bureau, organized on Oct. 1, 1890, was established by President William McKinley in 1896. And it got along just fine for decades, even with limited technology, until the federal government worked its magic hand in administration specialization.
The European center of prediction, based in England, has been around since 1976, but when the European Union was formed in 1993, it was able to generate monies from member states to advance its forecast capabilities. It uses more sophisticated software and supercomputers with more accurate outcomes. In Superstorm Sandy in 2011, it had the best overall record in all categories of prediction. Unlike the American GFS models, which are free for the asking, it charges for its assessments, confirming the adage that you get what you pay for.
The real tragedy in hurricane forecasting is the myopic view of the federal government, which through NASA has spent billions of dollars to reach the recent conclusion that Mars appears to have liquid water. How much comfort is that knowledge to Americans whose earthly lives have been adversely affected by NHC’s inferior forecasting?
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.