When 80% is not enough

Wednesday, August 17 at 2pm ET the National Hurricane Center issued the first outlook on what would become probably the most talked about area of interest (invest) in the history of mankind. That outlook began a process that kept scores of weather geeks, emergency managers, TV meteorologists, weather forecasting firms and the general public glued to their Internet-connected devices. From the get go it looked like this could be “the one”. It had potential to make it all the way across the Atlantic and possibly affect the United States after roaring through the Caribbean. And so here we are at the other side of that long journey and what became known as “99L” to millions of people will long be remembered for what it didn’t do: failed to develop.

As the process of tracking the tropical wave got underway, computer models were generally in agreement that the system would move westward at a fairly low latitude. However, it was clear early on that mid-level dry air, somewhat associated with the Saharan Air Layer (SAL), would be an inhibiting factor for development. Never the less, by early Saturday morning the 20th, it looked as though a tropical depression would form. Chances went from virtually nothing to 50% in just three days.

By Monday evening the 22nd, the probability increased to 60% and it looked as though a hurricane was possible for the southwest Atlantic Basin, maybe even close enough to Florida or the Carolinas to warrant concern. The social media hurricane machine was in full throttle mode with every expert (and non-expert) opinion you could imagine being thrown in to the mix. It was “invest 99L” overload and it would only get worse.

Leading the charge for development at first was the dynamic duo of the GFS and the ECMWF. Both seemed to latch on to 99L and make something of it. At first, it looked like a track towards Florida and then a turn north was likely. At times, the GFS had an enormous hurricane sitting not too far off the North Carolina coast, moving harmlessly out to sea in the longer term. It looked like this would be a close call but no guarantees yet for a landfall.

As the days went by, seemingly very slow considering we can watch the computer models come and go virtually 24 hours a day, things began to change. The GFS dropped the development almost completely while the ECMWF put memories of Katrina, Andrew and Betsy in our collective minds. It wasn’t just the Euro, the new and improved HWRF model, which is specifically designed to forecast tropical cyclones, showed similar forecasts of a hurricane headed towards south Florida and then turning west as it tracked south of a strong high pressure area over the mid-Atlantic. The hurricane world went in to full meltdown mode. It had been since before Twitter, Facebook as we know it, the iPhone and even the birth of One Direction that Florida had been hit by a hurricane. It was Tuesday, August 23 and 99L had a 70% chance of developing in to at least a tropical depression. The “H” word was bound for Florida.

To make matters worse, the ECMWF ramped up 99L to beast mode and sent it towards Louisiana, the LAST PLACE that needs a hurricane this season. Meanwhile, the GFS showed almost nothing at all. Just weak energy coming across and never really doing much. People were scoffing that if the Euro was right, congressional hearings needed to take place immediately to “fix the GFS!”. It was pure madness because, you know, the ECMWF nailed Sandy’s forecast from 8 days out. People were hung up on a hurricane from four years ago, forgetting the failures of even recent events like Erika last season and Fiona in 2010. Oh yeah, let me tell you about that one.

In 2010, we had Earl, headed for a possible landfall up the East Coast. Meanwhile, the ECMWF was advertising Fiona to be “the next Katrina”. A few in the weather business bit off on this and ran with it like the end times were coming. Earl was going to be a dud while Fiona would be a disaster of epic proportions. All the while, the GFS showed Earl doing exactly what it ended up doing: coming close to the NC Outer Banks then turning out to sea as a strong hurricane. As for Fiona, the GFS showed it as nothing more than a nuisance and that’s how it all turned out. GFS right, Euro wrong. Funny how few people remember that. I remember, trust me, I was on the Outer Banks where Earl brought 85 mph wind gusts to our anemometer that was set up next to Oregon Inlet.

By Wednesday morning, just 48 hours ago, the chance for 99L to develop made it to 80%. It looked like a sure thing now. I mean 80% is pretty good, right? In basketball an 80% free throw shooter is considered to be almost lethal from the line. You foul that player and you might as well put two points on the board. Eight times out of ten the shots go down.

But what happens when that player is in the title game and his team is down 1 with .90 seconds on the clock and he is fouled driving to the hoop? Everyone holds their breath as he lofts the first shot to tie the game. He misses. It’s stunning. The announcers balk about his percentage and how they can’t believe he missed. Must be the immense pressure. Time for try number two. He misses. No one gets the rebound and the clock expires. His team loses the National Championship for one simple reason: 80% is not enough. It’s not 100%. There was a 20% chance he missed either of those two shots. Now this is purely hypothetical but it makes my point. Sometimes high probability is mistaken for certainty.

In the case of 99L, it looks dead and gone now. The GFS, in its past few days of runs, turned out to be correct, for the most part. No hurricane coming for south Florida this weekend like the Euro showed. To be fair, the HWRF did as well and it busted big time. Instead, the Euro now has weak energy bringing possible heavy rain to portions of Florida. No hurricane in to Louisiana or elsewhere, just a strung out mess.

Odds of development over the next five days are down to 60%. Strong wind has all but beat the system in to oblivion. There is virtually no convection or thunderstorm activity with it and the USAF Hurricane Hunter crew has been grounded since there’s nothing there to investigate.

Sixty percent. Hmmmm. That’s not too high nor is it very low either. What is the reason behind this number? It’s because there is still a chance, apparently a 60% chance as of this writing, that 99L will develop some in the Gulf of Mexico. How could this be? The Euro “dropped it”. Well, the ever-excited HWRF sure didn’t and the GFS now shows limited development in a few days with some rather wacky tracks thrown in for good measure. To be honest, it’s giving me a headache to watch this day in and day out and all we have is an area of interest, even if fading to an area of blue skies.

I caution that while the gist of my post is aimed at pointing out the obvious, that anything short of 100% probability has a chance of falling short, it is also true that unless it’s zero, there’s still a chance. Even the 60% free throw shooter is sometimes the hero.

There is still some energy down in the region near the southeast Bahamas that might be able to survive long enough to warrant keeping an eye on. None of the computer models that show any development potential do so until later in the weekend – so let’s see what happens. Perhaps 80% was too high early on but 60% will be just enough for now.

We want to be able to trust the computer guidance to give us time to prepare if in fact something is going to develop. However, the public should understand probability and know the limitations of forecasts even in the relative short term. Most people don’t have time or interest to fully invest their energy in to making sense out of it all. I do my best and could not for the life of me understand why the GFS gave up on this system while the Euro did not. Sometimes you need to look out the window, so to speak, and view the actual weather and not just the predictions. The satellite presentation of 99L never really looked promising for development. It came close a couple of days ago but the reality was it didn’t have that “look”. So logic should have dictated that if it looks poor and one of the major global models insists on non-development, then maybe that’s why: because it won’t. It’s a simple concept and for now, it turned out to be right. Shear and lack of convection and overall organization has kept 99L from developing but it’s not necessarily over.

I think the next 48 hours will be all we need to know how this ends. If nothing happens by then and the wave of energy basically spreads out or dissipates completely, then we’re golden. Until that happens, it’s obviously prudent to keep an eye on things – just in case 60% is just enough to do what 80% could not.

I’ll have more in my daily video discussion posted here, to our app and on YouTube later this afternoon.

M. Sudduth 9AM ET Aug 26

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About Mark Sudduth

Greetings! I am Mark Sudduth, the founder and editor of HurricaneTrack.com. The site began in 1999 as a way to post info concerning tropical storms and hurricanes for any interested visitors. Little did I know how big it would become in the years since. Now, we have millions of visitors from all over the world who have come to rely on the site as a no non-sense, tell it like it is resource for all things hurricane related. We are supported by a combination of corporate sponsors and our loyal Client Services members who subscribe to premium content on our sister site, premium.hurricanetrack.com. I am married with six energetic and intelligent children and live in southeast North Carolina. I graduated UNC-Wilmington in 1995 with a BA in Geography and have studied the effects of hurricanes on our society ever since.
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