6B.3 Have We Reached the Limits of Predictability for Hurricane Track Forecasting?

Tuesday, 17 April 2018: 11:00 AM
Masters ABCD (Sawgrass Marriott)
Christopher Landsea, NOAA/NWS/NCEP/National Hurricane Center, Miami, FL; and J. P. Cangialosi

The hurricane remains the largest single-day impact meteorological event both in the United States and worldwide. This is the case for both the physical damage caused by storm surge, extreme winds, freshwater flooding, and embedded tornadoes as well as the potential for catastrophic loss of life.

Fortunately, over the last three decades there have been incredible advances in predictability, especially for track forecasts of the hurricane’s center. Errors have been cut by two-thirds in just 25 years due to global modeling advances along with commensurate satellite-based data assimilation improvements. The combination of the two have allowed for highly accurate synoptic-scale atmospheric initial conditions as well as depictions of these “steering flows” out through several days into the future.

However, such improvements cannot continue indefinitely. It is well known in the atmospheric sciences that there exists an inherent “limit of predictability” due to errors at the smallest scales (microscale – meters and seconds) that eventually cascade up to the largest scales (synoptic-scale – 1000’s kilometers and several days). While there have been estimates of the limits of predictability for hurricane track prediction in the past, our current capabilities have exceeded those somewhat pessimistic earlier outlooks.

This essay discusses the current state of the art for hurricane track prediction and reassesses whether the “limit of predictability” is imminent. The ramifications of this eventual conclusion – whether in the short-term or still decades away - will be critical for all users of hurricane track forecast information including the emergency management community/governments, the media, the private sector, and the general public.

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