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

A Mobile Media Monster

Sure, Apple's iPod may be all the rage among portable music lovers who want to take hours and hours of music wherever they wander. But plenty of other gadget makers are looking to unseat the hot little digital music player with their own mobile media wonders.

The latest is Archos, which intends to put a new contender, its AV 700, into the portable player ring at the end of this month.

Unlike the sleek and slim iPod, the AV700 will hardly fit in a shirt pocket or discreetly in a purse. But its 8-inch by 4-inch size does allow one feature that no iPod can handle: a 7-inch color screen.

Archos marketing manager David Feldman says the display, which is a "widescreen" format such as those on high-definition TVs, is needed because the AV 700 is a "mobile digital video recorder."

"It's a device that you can connect directly to your TV, your set top box, or your DVD player and record the content," he says.

Once attached to a cable TV decoder, an antenna or DVD player, the AV 700 can be programmed like a VCR to automatically record full color video and audio onto its built-in hard drive. That way, says Feldman, owners can take their entire video collection or favorite TV shows to watch while commuting to work or traveling on vacation.

And like the iPod, users can store thousands of digital song tunes, digital images and even computer data files.

The "removable battery gives you about 12 hours of audio life," says Feldman. "And if you're playing video -- like a movie or the TV show you recorded from last night, for example -- it would give you about five hours of battery life."

For longer-lasting entertainment -- say to keep the kids in the back seats occupied during long road trips – the unit can be plugged into a car's cigarette lighter for power. And once you've reached grandma's house, the AV 700 can draw power from a wall outlet and plugged into a larger TV display so everyone can enjoy the show.

The AV 700 will cost more than a pretty penny, however. A unit with a 40-gigabyte hard drive -- enough room for more than 80 DVD movies -- will cost about $600. A 100-gigabyte model which will hold about 400 hours of video will cost $800.

-- Larry Jacobs, ABC News

Cybershake is produced for ABC News Radio by Andrea J. Smith.

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