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Open Season

Just in time for the beginning of hurricane season (it kicked off yesterday, June 1), the AP reports that climatogists have little ability to project how bad things will actually be: "The AP contacted the emergency management agency in every coastal state from Texas to Maine and asked whether these seasonal forecasts play any role in their preparations for the hurricane season. Their response was unanimous: They're a great way to get people thinking about the upcoming season, but that's about it."

Climatologists at places like NOAA play it safe by issuing very vague warnings, as in "projected climate conditions point to a near normal or above normal hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin this year." Which is not particularly reassuring if you live on a coast. But the AP article faults journalists for treating predictions like gospel truth: reporting breathlessly that there will be a below-average season with only 6 storms, for example, as they did in 1992, when one of those storms just happened to be Hurricane Andrew.

Something I wondered about reading the article: The researchers use old data to come up with their projections, running old statistics through computer models that account for "everything from ocean salinity and rainfall amounts over West Africa to sunspot cycles and the influences of the Pacific warm-water current known as El Nino." Given that all the false predictions in the piece were overconservative, is there a chance that global warming, and the higher probability of extreme weather it may produce (scientists are still pretty unclear on this point, but there's some thought that climate change can make hurricanes at least more intense, if not also more frequent), is a factor in the false predictions? Actually, though, it sounds more like predictions have never been a winning game when it comes to hurricanes; and check out this interesting RealClimate post on the varied reliability of old hurricane data in general. Still, it seems likely that predictions will just continue to get harder to make, if global warming really does have an impact on hurricane patterns, unless climatologists find ways to keep up.

(Photo from the NOAA website.)

--Britt Peterson