Despite Tech, Tracking Storms Is Tough

Every 30 seconds when a hurricane threatens, a U.S. Air Force Hurricane Hunter sends a burst of data to computers tracking the storm.

An Air Force C-130 was the first to signal that Hurricane Charley had become a category 4 powerhouse on Friday. The planes make multiple passes through the storm's eye, dropping probes into the air to measure wind speed, barometric pressure, and the temperature of the air and the water below it.

But despite the technology available today, Charley proved how difficult the art of forecasting can be.

"With hurricanes, each one has its own personality," said Lt. Col. Ron Marx, pilot of a hurricane hunter flight out of Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. "Even if we fly in the same one multiple times, every time we go it's different."

Hurricane Charley was a stern reminder of that. As late as Friday morning, some forecasts said there was a good chance the storm would hit Tampa, Fla., directly. But at the last moment, it made a slight turn to the right.

The storm's path only shifted about 50 miles, but to people in that path, those 50 miles were crucial.

"I never thought it was going to come right straight across and hit us like this," said one storm victim.

‘We'll Never Have a Perfect Forecast’

Forecasters themselves know better than to be surprised by the last-minute surprises every storm offers. They issued hurricane warnings for the entire west coast of Florida the day before landfall.

"Hurricanes make these kinds of wobbles all the time," said Ed Rappaport, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "It's another reason why the warning area is larger than the storm itself."

The hurricane hunters send data from the storm's center, while satellites provide views from above. The information is analyzed by more than half a dozen different computer models.

In Charley's case, probes from the C-130s reported that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico were in the high 80s — unusually warm, even for August. That probably boosted the storm's strength.

But a hurricane is infinitely complex. If it changes course or intensity, meteorologists with today's technology may never know why.

"After 18 years of flying through hurricanes, your respect for these things continues to grow," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Valerie Hendry, a hurricane hunter weather officer.

The National Hurricane Center said its predictions improve by a few percent every year. Still, the best computer models tend to miss by 40 or 50 miles — 40 or 50 crucial miles.

"That's certainly our goal, to have a track forecast without error," said Scott Kiser, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Of course, given the wills and wiles of mother nature, we'll probably never have a perfect forecast."

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