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"Hurricane forecasting faces challenges"
(Source: Scripps Howard News Service, 5/18/01)
TAMPA, Fla. - Thinking too highly of Max Mayfield could be a dangerous
mistake, he says. Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center in
Miami, frets that satellite photos, computers and fancy TV graphics have
led the public to believe that he and his team of specialists actually
know where hurricanes will go.

"We do a little better every year," he said. "But I'm afraid people think
we do a better job than we actually do."

Mayfield isn't knocking his own skills, or those of his colleagues. It's
true, he said, that computer modeling grows more sophisticated every year,
and that improved disposable "sondes" dropped into storms now routinely
provide forecasters crucial up-to-the-minute data from the belly of the

But, he told emergency managers during the Governor's Hurricane
Conference, hurricanes still offer plenty of surprises. Forecasters still
struggle with storm tracks and intensity, especially with fast-developing
storms, he said Wednesday. The approaching June-through-November hurricane
season is likely to produce an average number of storms, he said, which
would be 10 named  storms, six becoming hurricanes.

"But it's not just about the numbers," Mayfield said, reminding his
audience that the most deadly storm in history, the strongest in history
(the Florida Keys, 1935), and costliest (Andrew, Miami-Dade County, 1992),
all came in years in which storm activity was below long-term averages.
Mayfield identified several challenges from last season's 15 tropical
storms, of which eight became hurricanes.

Alberto, which formed in August, was the third-longest-lived tropical
cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin, and it led Mayfield's
forecasters on a merry chase. With all the computer models predicting a
northward track, it instead began a lazy, weeklong, clockwise loop between
Bermuda and the Azores.

Debby, another August storm, tracked westward across the Atlantic, passed
just north of Puerto Rico, then surprised forecasters with a turn south.

Hurricane Keith, a September-October storm, went from a Category 1 storm
to a 140-mph, Category 4 brute "in about 12 hours," Mayfield said.

Tropical Storm Leslie caused three deaths and flooding damage put at $700
million in South Florida while still an October tropical depression.

The lesson is that hurricanes remain dangerously unpredictable, Mayfield
said, and that's not likely to change soon.

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