03 Dec 2013 NOAA Should Get Out of the Hurricane Forecasting Business
We once hired a chimp to make a point about forecasts.
Saturday marked the official end of the 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season and once again, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proved itself utterly incapable of accurately forecasting hurricanes.
It’s time NOAA stop issuing hurricane forecasts.
In May, the agency predicted an “active or extremely active” hurricane season, forecasting that there would be 7-11 hurricanes, 3-6 major hurricanes, and 13-20 named storms.
The year’s final tally: 2 hurricanes, no major hurricanes, and 13 named storms… not even “close enough for government work.”
This marked the 7th time in the past ten years that NOAA’s hurricane forecast has been wrong and its epic failure this year rivals even its disastrous forecast in 2005, when it predicted there would be 7-9 hurricanes and there ended up being 15.
NOAA’s forecasts were only accurate in 2008, 2010 and 2011. In 2010 and 2011, the actual number of hurricanes just barely fell within NOAA’s forecast range, despite being uncharacteristically large.
Perhaps NOAA could be forgiven, somewhat, if it at least got the post-season analysis right. But it can’t even do that.
In its November 25 mea culpa, sans the culpa (NOAA never mentions its forecast nor its spectacular failure), NOAA asserts that the season ranks as “the sixth-least-active Atlantic hurricane season since 1950, in terms of the collective strength and duration of named storms and hurricanes.”
This is a bit misleading, to say the least. Most Americans would see this statement and conclude that there were five other years since 1950 with less storm activity.
But that’s not what it means.
What NOAA it means is that if you only count the storms that our government noticed, then it is the sixth least active since 1950.
That’s akin to a Keystone Kop facing once direction with all sorts of criminal activity behind his back saying, “No crime around here.”
NOAA is attempting to suggest a degree of precision that it simply does not possess.
It wasn’t until 1966, with the launch of ESSA-1 and ESSA-2, that we had a weather satellite system in place.
Prior to this system, the odds were pretty good that storms – in particular those outside of shipping and travel lanes – would be missed entirely.
Since the start of the satellite age, our capabilities have improved dramatically and this makes it appear as though the number of tropical storms and hurricanes have increased, even when they haven’t.
In terms of the number and intensity of hurricanes, the 2013 hurricane season might be the weakest… EVER.
This year, there were just two weak category 1 hurricanes. The 1982, 1930, 1919, 1917 and 1890 seasons also had two or fewer hurricanes, but at least one in each year was a major hurricane.
Dating back to 1850, there were just a handful of years – 1925 (one), 1914 (zero), 1907 (zero), and 1905 (one) – in which fewer hurricanes were recorded than this year. But because these seasons occurred prior to the advent of satellites, the odds are good that there were more hurricanes in some, if not all, of these years that went undetected.
Being wrong so frequently poses a more significant risk to NOAA than just a little embarrassment. It threatens to undermine the agency’s credibility, undermine the public’s faith in even its short-range forecasts, and ultimately place lives at risk.
And NOAA isn’t alone in undermining it credibility by suggesting a greater level of certainty than it possesses.
For years now, we’ve been told that there is a scientific consensus that our burning of fossil fuels is creating dangerous warming of the planet.
Now the public has learned that we’re in the midst of a 17-year “pause” in global warming that not one of the 73 climate models used by the U.N. Intergovernmental Climate on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report predicted.
In 2002, commenting on the possibility that Iraq had supplied or might supply Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to terrorists, Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, famously said: “…there are known knowns… There are known unknowns… But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
NOAA, the IPCC and other voices of science should be as candid and honest.