New Software Tool to Predict Hurricane Landfall

In this week's "Cybershake," we take a look at a new computer program that is able to predict where this year's hurricanes may head based on the way the mid-summer's winds blow. Plus, we note a new, pricey digital media gadget that could be the apple of every traveler's eye.

Program Predicts Hurricane's Heading

The summer hurricane season has arrived in the United States and, unfortunately, the news isn't good for residents of the East Coast states.

Atmospheric researchers at Colorado State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that, much like last year, there will be "above average" tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Both institutions expect about 15 tropical storms to sprout up in the eastern waters with about seven to nine of them becoming hurricane-level storms. More than half -- three to five -- of those tropical cyclones are predicted to become "major" hurricanes featuring winds of at least 111 miles per hour.

Such predictions closely match last year's count of 15 tropical storms and nine actual hurricanes. But more worrisome is the possibility that an increasing number of them will make "landfall" and cause extensive damage among coastline communities.

On average, the United States is hit by major hurricanes only twice every three years or so. But during last year's above-average hurricane season, four of the six major hurricanes struck land, resulting in billions of dollars in damages and associated clean-up costs for residents of Florida and surrounding regions.

To help storm watchers determine which storms might pose a threat to U.S. coastlines, researchers say they've developed a valuable software tool that could more accurately predict which way a hurricane will travel.

Created by Mark Saunders and Adam Lea at England's University College London, the software is different from current storm modeling programs. In addition to using sea surface temperatures, the new software also takes into account wind speeds in the upper atmosphere.

According to studies conducted by Saunders and his team, mid-summer wind patterns from sea level up to about 25,000 feet can form "steering currents" that act as a hurricane's "rudder."

"The July wind patterns allow us to predict where the hurricanes will be steered toward U.S. landfall or away from it," said Saunders. "And that's how we can predict how severe or not the U.S. landfalling hurricane season will be."

To test their theory, the research team tried its software model using data from as far back as 1950. And as published in a recent issue of Nature magazine, Saunders said the software tool accurately predicted hurricane activity in 74 percent of those years studied.

But Saunders notes that the software can only predict the general direction of a storm and not whether it will strike a specific region -- North Carolina versus Florida, say. And since it relies on mid-summer trade wind data, the tool works online on hurricanes that occur in the latter half -- from July to September -- of the season.

Still, he says such a tool could be useful for storm trackers and insurance companies since some of last year's worse storms, such as Hurricane Jeanne, hit later in the season.

-- Linda Albin, ABC News

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