How do Meteorologists Predict Hurricanes

Meteorology has evolved over the years, to the point where meteorologists now have all sorts of tools to use for forecasting and predicting weather. The ones that are most familiar to the average person are the Doppler radar and satellite images. With hurricanes, despite all of the advances in research and the development of more accurate forecasting models, scientists and meteorologists still have not yet been able to formulate methods that can predict where a hurricane will make landfall with any kind of absolute certainty.

There are two basic categories for predicting hurricanes: by using seasonal hurricane activity predictions and by analyzing the track of a current hurricane.

*Seasonal hurricane activity predictions –

Scientists are able to predict the number of named storms and their breakdown by intensity. From there, they break down that total number into the number of hurricanes, intense hurricanes and tropical storms. They can also predict the wind speed and intensity of sustained winds in both hurricanes and tropical storms.

The researchers who analyze this type of data use elementary statistics to calculate these things. When comparing the data from previous seasons, sustained wind speeds follow the Poisson Distribution and this is accurate with a reasonable amount of consistency.

*Predicting storms –

The way named storms are predicted is by looking at past storms that occurred and by taking the current measures of various climate related factors. At the beginning of the season, however, named storms can only be labeled as probabilities. Meteorologists cannot predict that any given named storms will hit the Florida coast in a specific place on a specific date. What they are able to say, is that there may be a 5% chance that a major storm will hit the Florida coast at some point between April and November of a given year.

*Tracking hurricane routes –

Hurricanes can only be tracked after they have formed, and because of this, scientists may be better able to predict the trajectory of hurricane. To do this, a cone is used to represent the path. When scientists and/or meteorologists are first predicting the path of a hurricane, the cone will be wide. This is to allow for a margin of error and to give people a general idea of the area that may be affected by the hurricane. This kind of information is essential because it can help people plan a course of action and make the necessary preparations to keep themselves, their family and pets safe.

*Original best model – CLIPER (Climate and Persistence) –

Although CLIPER is designed to be a “statistical regression equation” that is based on both past and current climatological data, it is no longer used as the major forecasting model. It is now used mainly as a way by which to compare new models.

*Two new models for predicting or forecasting hurricanes –

The two models of predicting hurricanes use data that is gathered from the reconnaissance planes that are sent up into the storm. These models are NHC90 (NHC = National Hurricane Center,) and BAM (or Beta and Advection Model.) These two models take measurements several times a day, and those measurements are then used to create the new data.

NHC (or the National Hurricane Center) relies most heavily on two international forecasting systems. One is the U.S. Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Predictions Systems and the other is the United Kingdom Meteorological Office’s global model. Obviously, these aren’t the only forecast models that are used, but they are some of the most common major models that are used for forecasting.

Both the U. S. Navy and the U.K. models are only designed to track the course of path of the hurricane. Unfortunately, there are far fewer models that are able to track hurricane intensity than there are models that are able to track the path of a hurricane. The ability to accurately predict both the path and intensity of a storm is essential for helping people prepare themselves and their homes so that they can take whatever precautions the local authorities might deem necessary.



SHIFOR (Statistical Hurricane Intensity Forecast Model,) is essentially the intensity equivalent of CLIPER. While CLIPER can forecast the storm’s path, SHIFOR is used to forecast the intensity.

*SHIPS (Statistical Hurricane Intensity Prediction Scheme) –

Ships is a method that uses data that is taken from the ocean’s surface and it can be used to predict changes in a hurricane trajectory. Another relatively new model uses the data of SHIPS as a means for calculating the chance that a storm will have Rapid Intensification.

*GFDL (Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Model) –

This model was designed in the early 1990’s and it uses a movable equation to make its predictions.


Despite all of the great strides that have been made in the science of forecasting and predicting hurricanes and their intensity, there is still much more to do.

*Accuracy – one of major problems –

The NHC has been forecasting hurricane paths ever since the early 1950’s. Forecasts are issued at 120, 96, 72, 48, 24 and 12 hour intervals. It wasn’t until 2003 that the 120 and 96 hour forecasts were introduced. As the time before a hurricane makes landfall decreases, so does the margin of error. The development of more accurate forecast models has made the margin of error decrease even more over recent years, but there is still a very high rate of error with predictions.

Errors can have a huge impact on the damage that any area will receive. If the error is as much as a distance of 100 miles, that prediction could ultimately be a determining factor in a local government’s decision about whether or not to evacuate people.

*Predicting Intensity – another major problem –

Despite all of the advances in scientific and meteorological research and technology, there are some things that are difficult to predict, and the biggest obstacle to accuracy in the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico. Normally, it is the surface water that is the warmest in the Gulf of Mexico, but in the area known as the Loop Current, the deeper water is also warm. A storm may increase all of a sudden because the stream of water from the Loop Current provides a lot of added fuel.

Normally, the hurricane will churn up cooler water, and this will cool the surface temperature of the Gulf and as the surface temperature cools, that will weaken the storm. The Loop Current is never constant, and it changes everything from depth to position and strength, and all of these changes over the course of years can make it very difficult to predict the intensity or path of a hurricane as accurately as one would like.

Meteorologists who specialize in hurricane research are very cognizant of what is at stake with their work. Their scientific research has led to the creation of newer and more sophisticated models that are used to predict everything from hurricane activity to the path and intensity of an imminent hurricane. The importance of this information and research cannot be understated, but still, there will always be more that can be done to advance the ability to predict the path and intensity of hurricanes with the greatest possible accuracy.


MIT – Hurricanes – Prediction Hurricanes: A Not So Exact Science –