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Rudi Kiefer: New tools will aid safety during hurricane season

Hurricane season starts June 1. As always, the names of tropical storms and hurricanes that may develop in the Atlantic Ocean are predetermined by the World Meteorological Organization, not by the U.S. government. Founded in 1950, the WMO is a specialized agency of the United Nations, in charge of studying weather, climate, hydrology and related sciences.

If the WMO’s entire 2018 list ends up being used, we’ll see Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence, Gordon, Helene, Isaac, Joyce, Kirk, Leslie, Michael, Nadine, Oscar, Patty, Rafael, Sara, Tony, Valerie and William.

In the U.S., the National Hurricane Center has new items in its toolbox. You’ve seen the “forecast cone” on maps displayed on the news whenever a tropical system was approaching the U.S. coast. It looks like a soap bubble emerging from a child’s toy, getting wider at its end. That cone indicates the possible track that a storm might take. It is really a timeline. The farther forward you look on it, the greater the uncertainty, so the cone gets much wider on the map. 

But improved software has resulted in smaller timeline cones since last summer, so the planning for evacuations and first-response measures has become more accurate also. Another innovation is a map of “earliest reasonable arrival time” of tropical-storm force winds (35 mph or higher). In other words, coastal cities will know how much time is left to finish preparations before the show starts.

The cone indicates where the center of a hurricane is expected to be. But powerful winds can occur well outside that “soap bubble.” The new graphics we’ll see this year include that information, too. This will help avoid a false impression of safety where communities aren’t included in the cone, but may still suffer damage.

The most dangerous element of tropical storms and hurricanes is the storm surge. That’s not the set of waves driven by the wind. It’s the rise of the ocean level as a storm lifts the water, like a gigantic vacuum cleaner. Storm surges have in the past razed entire barrier islands, destroying all buildings in their path. 

The NHC now produces storm surge maps, indicating those parts of the coast line where danger is approaching. With these innovations, and a number of others, the National Hurricane Center will once again make our lives safer during hurricane season.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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