I wrote a case study on the NHC in The New Polymath in 2010. There was much to admire:
“They reach out to a wide range of data sources in hostile circumstances. They apply multiple, conflicting models to the data. They present the data in multiple formats depending on the sophistication of the audience. And they keep improving their forecasts year on year.”
I had a chance to visit the Miami center last week to get an update. It was good to see the “platforms” for data capture continue to expand and modernize. For example, the GOES-16, which went live last year is the first of 4 next-gen geostationary satellites planned. (click on images to enlarge)
It was good to see their track forecast accuracy continue to improve
It was good to see their “products” evolve – such as a new forecast for the time when it is too late to be making preparations for a tropical storm or hurricane outside.
But it was especially nice to meet the brave, smart folks at the center
Here is Warren Madden, a meteorologist in the CARCAH unit (Chief, Aerial Reconnaissance Coordination, All Hurricanes). He has flown over 1000 hours including missions into Hurricanes Rita, Ivan, Wilma and Floyd. He talked about the planes the Hurricane Hunters fly into storms including the WP-3D Orion and the G-IV Gulfstream. He explained the role of dropsondes - temperature, pressure and humidity sensors, low powered telemetry transmitter, GPS receiver and battery in a cardboard tube with a parachute. They drop several of these sondes during each sortie. As the sonde descends the GPS receiver tracks the position and velocity and allows for deduction of wind speed and direction in the storm.
Jack Beven, Senior Hurricane Specialist. who signs off on many storm advisories like one during Hurricane Irma last year, told us about the role of satellites and supercomputers in the forecasting process.
Phil Manougian was our tour guide and chockful of information and trivia. He is a NOAA Commissioned Corps Officer. Did you know that is one of 7 Federal Uniformed Services? (others are Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Public Health Service)
Dennis Feltgen, the Communications and Public Affairs Officer, was our host. I was impressed by how much complex science and technology at use at the NHC has to be distilled for the benefit of the lay person, under extreme stress of an approaching hurricane. Also made me appreciate how tough it must be to protect his colleagues from the media rush while they are trying to analyze the mountains of data, often of multiple storms approaching simultaneously.
We also met other colleagues in the Tropical Analysis & Forecast Branch which produces marine forecasts for an an area which covers 14,000,000 square nautical miles and the National Weather Service branch co-located there which produces warnings and forecasts for South Florida and the adjacent waters.
Can machines replace these brave souls? I asked Madden about drones, and he explained their battery life and payload capacity at this point is still pretty limited. I asked Beven about machine learning and while computers are indispensable at the NHC, they still need plenty of human interpretation.
As I wrote in Polymath "While most of the attention goes to hurricanes when they make landfall and cause chaos, this team’s contribution is even more valuable in reducing the “false positives” – not needing to evacuate areas unless absolutely necessary."
I left very proud of these humble, geeky public servants!