Why Hurricane Michael’s Power Caught Forecasters Off Guard

Predicting the storm’s path was straightforward, but a number of factors contributed to its sudden intensification.

Comments: 65

  1. Interesting about the Hurricanes, everyone watches with bated breath on the path, every expectation that the scientific prediction is correct. Yet, the predictions made by the same scientists are met with hostility when they discuss AGW.

  2. There is a difference between not adhering to a pattern based on historical data (and subject to historical variables)....and the existence of new variables. What this column implies is that people who choose to live in close proximity to the water are in some way entitled to have a Cat 5 develope farther away and with more time to prepare. In addition, people are lazy (or worse) and that variable should, instead, be factored in. We know from past experience that with the passage of time people forget how bad a hurricane can be and don't take warnings seriously. More to the point, the Category of the hurricane is not relevant: anyone who elects to live in close proximity to the water should do so at their own risk and bear the economic and personal burden. The global water level is rising as is the temperature regardless of the cause. Govern yourself accordingly.

  3. Hi, @Allen82 -- I wrote the story, and while I do appreciate your having left a comment, the story in no way implies what you're saying, but I have written extensively about the need for the National Flood Insurance Program to take the likelihood of future flooding into account, and to promote rebuilding with resilience or relocation, where advisable.

  4. It would be interesting to hear from scientists regarding similarities between Michael and the Long Island Express of 80 years ago. These rapidly-moving storms have northeast quadrants that combine the storm's cyclonic wind speeds with their progress and can add 20-25 mph to the surface effect. Given the force is a product of the square of the velocity, that additional speed would seem to generate substantially more force - both directly and through the storm surge. If that's the case, locales on the Gulf Coast would be at additional risk due to the way they're situated - max exposure to perpendicular storm paths and nearness to an inherently warm body of water.

  5. Living in US Virgin Islands, where last year, two Cat 5 hurricanes- sustained wind of 175 mph w/ gusts up to 200- caused widespread devastation, hurricane season this year has been a long, stressful wait-and-see, because we know that these are not the usual weather patterns and that extreme events predicted by scientists for decades are here and now.

    So here's a plea from climate change land to those who tune in Weather Channel science and tune out the science of climate change:

    Wake up! Time is running out on making the essential changes & this new future of wait-and-see really is no way to live. Can anyone spell "unsustainable" and "uninhabitable"?

  6. Science uses double-blind controlled variable experimental tests limiting the unknowns to provide predictable and repeatable results. Controlling macro natural phenomenon is impossible. Gathering and analyzing all relevant data is also impossible.

    Because we only know and have limited understanding of the 5% of physical reality that is not dark energy aka 70% of reality nor dark matter aka 25% of reality. And what we know of that 5% is separated by two irreconcilable theories of quantum mechanics and relativity.

    Forecasters are only as bad or good as is their data. Chaos is real in a dynamic environment over space and time.

  7. @Blackmamba,
    You emphasize the importance of data and I fully agree. Data are the foundation of science, all right! But it's an oversimplificiation to say "science" depends on double-blind controlled variable experimental tests limiting the unknowns. That's rightly expected in some areas of science, especially psychology and medicine. Now think of astronomy. Experiments? Controlled? Double-blind? Impossible! Yet astronomy has been extraordinarily successful in understanding phenomena we can never experiment on. That's the most obvious but not the only example. I'm sure you know this, but I don't like to see posts (of which there are many) that insist science can only be done in one way.

  8. @Blackmamba

    Forecasters are good, they predicted this path ... and warned people to get out of the way, just like they have for Florence and for the blessedly weaker than predicted Irma that weakened before destroying areas like Tampa.

    Weather forecasting due to great satellite data and advanced computing and advancements in modeling are now showing that short term is no longer chaotic .. it is somewhat predictable and can help remove people from harms way.

    Climate modeling is similar and certainly a forcing function of doubling C02 will have effects, whether you personally like that or not.

    Just like an apple falling out of tree will hit you in the head, but with 350 years of science after Newton making it a bit more advanced, whether you understand it or not or whether your tribe choses to care or not.

    People will need to figure out how to evacuate and maybe we do need to provide school buses or equivalent to take poor people away from areas in harms way and then provide at least MREs for them until they can return home. If they are lucky, it was a false alarm and they can return home. If they are unlucky and the storm devastated their homes, at least they are out of harms way, reducing emergency rescues, and are in an area that can provide temporary lodging ..

  9. We choose to live in Florida, on the water, and at our own risk and economic burden. Agree that the category of a hurricane is not relevant, as evidenced with Florence. Forecasters are often off the mark and so many Floridians follow Mike’s Weather Page for accurate, comprehensive and balanced info without all the hype. Something our local and govt. forecasters seem unable to accomplish.

  10. Your own risk? From where does your flood indurance come?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  11. @kathy:

    Maybe you should petition your climate science-denying governor to at least initiate an income tax for your state so we, up here in blue-country, won't have to continuously fund your rebuilding.

  12. Giving the hurricanes and tropical storms human names (Michael?) gives a sense of familiarity and ease that this has all has been seen before... so the locals ride Michael and Florence etc. out from their homes. As these events continue in power and frequency it's going to be hard to put each one in box as a unique oddity when they are ALL the effects of one global disastrous climate change- a singular disaster that blurs all of the storms into a big issue that needs some human intervention. The time for cuteifing these constant horrific scenes along our coasts with unique names is misnaming the beast.

  13. The idea of hurricanes literally forming overnight, which has happened several times this year, is pretty terrifying. But the idea of future hurricanes acting like other weather systems that simply get cut off from the jet stream and stuck for a week or longer in one place is even worse.

    Hurricanes play an important role in cooling down the oceans when they get too hot. But if the ocean gets hot enough, it's possible that hurricanes would be almost constant. That's very close to what happened in the Pacific this year, where we didn't go a single week without a hurricane or typhoon this summer. Thankfully not all of them made landfall but the ones that did were very destructive. The NYT only covers Atlantic hurricanes so many of its readers don't even know how active the season has been over here.

  14. Global Climate Catastrophe is at hand. Prediction is thing of the past. Way too many variables now that are unstable. Emergency--all citizens must lower destructive human impact --NOW!

  15. @That's what she said, don't worrry, it is being handled, slowly but surely.

  16. There is no such thing as ‘climate change.’ Fearless Leader said so. He said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

    Perhaps a true Christian, like Robert Jeffress or Jerry Falwell, can weigh in and give us the real explanation - Hurricane Michael is the Invisible Sky Daddy’s way of raining punishment down on sinners. Blame gays and scarlet women, especially those who have dared to fabricate stories about having been violated by wealthy, powerful old white men. Wacko Democrats with a lust for power, and environmental terrorists, that’s the problem.

    [snark attack]

  17. @chambolle

    Actually you have hit the nail on the head, but are misinterpreting Sky Daddy's source of anger.

    What he is really furious about is the election of the lying con-man Trump, the continuing support of this odious breaker of his commandments and the placement of the perjurer and attempted rapist Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

    That is why he punished North Carolina earlier and hit the Florida Panhandle and then Georgia and the Carolinas again for good measure, since they haven't seemed to have gotten the message he sent earlier.

  18. Clearly we need to fund climate science more and to mobilize in order to return our government to one that values competence, knowledge, facts, duplication of results, preventive measures, regulations, and care of the environment and of each other. Sane compatriots, this is the time to unite and to start the hard work of addressing climate change and to find new ways to live in justice with one another. Many Central American immigrants are really climate refugees. One planet, one humanity.

  19. It is like living near the San Andreas fault in California, it is a beautiful area, and the odds of the catastrophe getting your family low. But... like any gambling the more years you buck the odds the more likely it will happen.
    Now will global ocean warming, its like getting a couple less numbers you have to guess for the Power Ball.

  20. Apples and oranges! There are DECADES between major earthquakes, not months as is increasingly the case with major hurricanes.

  21. With all due respect, few, if any, residents affected by Hurricane Michael can claim they were caught off guard by the storm. Some residents may have concluded that they could ride out a Category 1 or 2 storm and that there was no chance the storm could intensify beyond that. But that is not being caught off guard - that is being stupid and arrogant.

  22. in my next life I'm going to be a weather forecaster. in what other job can you be wrong much more than you are right and still have a secure job?

  23. POTUS?

  24. @bored critic
    Republican senator.

  25. It really wasn't anything special, just the typical rain and wind that comes with living on the southeast coast.

  26. Headline: ". . . caught forecasters off guard." Please change this headline.

    The strengthening of the Hurricane Michael may have been incredible as noted in the article, but the implication that meteorologists were somehow not on top of the forecasts for this storm is not supported by the warnings posted by the National Weather Service and the actions of state and local authorities who evacuated areas well ahead of the storm's arrival. They provided the warnings needed to give people time to get to safer locations.
    Surprised to see what was happening? Yes. Off guard? No way.

    Now, as a meteorologist, at times I found myself saying, isn't this storm going to stop intensifying as it approaches land? But the forecasters held to the models' predictions of increasing intensity, backed by data from aircraft and satellites and land and water stations. I'm sure we will learn even more from this storm as researchers study the data gathered. In the meantime, hopes, thoughts, prayers and support go out for the people and families whose lives have been lost or dramatically changed by this force of nature.

  27. This 2040 nonsense. People will think we have time. We don't. It's already too late to return to normal. We are now at constant catastrophe and how much can we mitigate.

  28. "Hurricane Michael’s sharp increase in strength as it approached Florida was due in part to its low barometric pressure..."

    Low barometric pressure is the result of the storm's intensity, not the cause of it.

  29. For KFM... The Climate Alarmist....... If Computer Models are unable to accurately predict hurricane’s path for one Day...explain to everyone how the models can predict Global Surface temperatures into the next Century. And don’t give me the Apples and Oranges argument!

  30. @Stephen Maniloff

    I think that you have to make the distinction between weather and climate.

  31. Welcome to global warming, everybody. Each year it will be worse.

  32. @Alex, Yes it will. The school districts have 3 snow make-up days on the books every year. Last year we used 2 days for a hurricane, and this year 1 so far for a hurricane. In the South, snow will be a thing of the past and we will call them Hurricane make-up Days and we are 5+ hours from the coast.

  33. And yet the panhandle is filled with voters who keep climate-change-denialists in office. One of many examples of the Republican party (and its Fox News mouthpiece) peddling misinformation that harms its audience but keeps its paymasters in power.

  34. As a Christian, I almost hate to admit the irony in your statement nor will I dare suggest they deserved it.

    From a Christian perspective, this land isn’t even ours but belonging to a higher presence. Our presence here might solely be temporary but I think destruction should be a part of that plan.

  35. Climate change science seems not to be very helpful in predicting either climate or weather. Years after we were warned of the dangers of climate change, we learned that predicted warming has been drastically underestimated and so we face Armageddon in 20 years rather than a century.

    As for weather forecasts, there was believed to be a change in hurricane patterns, as marked by Harvey and Florence -- slow moving storms whose damage mostly resulted from flooding. But no, Michael was all about wind.

    The confidence in climate change science has led to the belief that the future is largely predictable and preventive strategy is pretty clear. But that just isn't true.

    What is predictable about climate change is that it's unpredictable.

  36. @michjas
    No, what's predictable about cimate change is that people like you will be out there trying to cast doubt on it with absolutely no scientific foundation at all.
    In fact, the theory has a pretty long history and has been proven accurate. I first heard about it 40 years ago, when I was in college. Since then, storms have gotten worse. Droughts have gotten worse. Sea temps and sea levels have risen. All are in accordance with the general theory of climate change as laid out to me in that lecture, a year-ending speech that my history professor would give that came to be known as "The Doomsday Speech."
    It's a red herring to say that just because this storm isn't like that storm that debunks the whole theory. You know that, but you're just throwing in this "uncertainty" notion as a way of clouding over the entire issue.

  37. @michjas:

    You can't have storms that flood more because of slower storm speed and higher precip, . . and also can't have storms that are more devastating because of higher wind speed?

    Who knew?

  38. What if they’ve experienced category 5s and 6s back then too but just didn’t have the technology to measure it? Now we do so I am not that surprised to know this isn’t anything new.

    We should always, always be conscious of our temporary planet though. Sadly, it’s a known fact or just by observing their patterns, that people who are likely to be more conscious of the planet, are the ones who are more conscious of taking care of themselves especially when they know their purpose.

    What if we focused on helping others find their purpose in life?

  39. Immediately jumping to climate change is just guessing. The US has had storms and hurricanes this large in 1900, 1926 etc etc. I'm not denying climate change but just the knee-jerk linking of everything 'bad' to it. As for damage; yes it will be expensive, but the immediate solutions are to strengthen zoning & construction rules and attempt to stop more and more people moving to low lying areas in hurricane paths and near the sea.

  40. @Gary
    The problem is that you use the word "solution." Rejiggering building codes is not a "solution." It's a stopgap, short-term measure that does not in any way address climate change. It's a cheap, easy way to salve a few wounds, but it leaves the cancer untouched and growing unabated. And people will say new building codes will be "enough," when they clearly won't be, and so we'll be just kicking the can further down the road.

  41. Until climate change scientists predicted more hurricanes and more violent hurricanes, there was no talk of a deteriorating situation. But when more hurricanes were predicted, hurricanes became the thing of the day.

    Despite the dire predictions, though there have been no high fatality hurricanes anytime recently, except for Maria. What we have had are flooding hurricanes which, except for Katrina, were not among the worst 30 floods events in US history.

    Wind-borne damage, of late, has been relatively slight. The same with water-borne damage, except for Katrina and Harvey. Bottom line, recent hurricanes are not among the worst or the most numerous.

    The nature of storm damage has changed. But even the worst storms are not 100 year storms. People should understand that changes in storm patterns are what we're seeing. But we've had plenty worse storms over the years.

  42. @michjas - "Hurricane Sandy (unofficially referred to as Superstorm Sandy) was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. Inflicting nearly $70 billion (2012 USD) in damage, it was the second-costliest hurricane on record in the United States until surpassed by Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017. [...] While it was a Category 2 hurricane off the coast of the Northeastern United States, the storm became the largest Atlantic hurricane on record (as measured by diameter, with tropical-storm-force winds spanning 900 miles (1,400 km)). At least 233 people were killed along the path of the storm in eight countries."

    And Houston had a 500-year flood the year before Harvey's 500-year flood. Just from rain, no hurricane. And they had one the year before that, too. Just rain, no hurricane.

    Just as a bit of trivia about Sandy - it was causing giant waves along the Chicago shoreline while the eastern edge of the storm was still pushing around the Jersey Shore.

  43. Micheal may have been less of a surprise than this article implies. I recall reading the forecast discussion on the NOAA hurricane center web site about the time that MIcheal first reached hurricane strength and that forecasters even then mentioned the possibility it could reach major hurricane strength.
    The forecasters understand their limited ability to forecast wind speeds, and in this case pointed out early on that Micheal could become a real disaster.
    They did a good job under the circumstances. Hats off to them.

  44. @Bill White

    Yes they did and continue to do a good job because they're pros. Yes, hats off, and three cheers.

  45. Earlier this year I read a report saying that deeper Gulf waters were unusually higher in temperature. Tracking Michael, it seems that it rapidly gained strength as it passed over some of these deeper waters of the Gulf. Gaining strength from surface waters it still would have the deeper water thermal energy to draw upon where, normally, it would not. This could be reflected in the realtively small but highly defined eye and the accompanying unusually low atmospheric pressure at it's center.

  46. The models cannot accurately predict weather a few days or even hours ahead. So what is the basis of climatologists bring so certain about predictions decades in the future? So certain that many claim “the science is settled,” a claim that is itself totally unscientific, I think a little humility is in order.

  47. @Son of Liberty That more energy will be dissipated by storms in the future is settled. The specifics are not.

    You critique the micro analysis and completely miss the macro.

  48. @Son of Liberty

    Sure, don't take an umbrella when the forecast calls for rain this afternoon.

    The hurricane was forecast to be dangerous several days ago with tracks almost right were they hiit. Never was going to be a soft hit, and with warm seas, hurricanes can strengthen.

    Weather forecasts are remarkably accurate, especially considering the complexity of what they represent, from wind patterns, to local terrain, ground temperatures, ocean temperatures, you name it.

    When is it accurate enough for you to believe that someone may actually have a clue as to what is going on in the atmosphere, whether short term so you can bring your umbrella or flee an impending storm, or long term so you can trade that SUV in on a reasonable vehicle and stop supporting the oil and coal industry over all other people and priorities.

    25,000 coal miners can find something else to do, but that would put less $$ in the Koch brothers pockets. Certainly we could stop burning middle eastern oil produced by murders and stop drilling wells in pristine deserts all over the West.

  49. @Son of Liberty
    People like you do not pay attention to weather enough to really know how accurate the forecasts are. There are people who do because it matters to them. For example, I enjoy windsurfing. I regularly (as in daily) check the weather forecasts to see whether it will be windy enough (~20 mph) during a given period for me to go sailing. Sure, the forecasts aren't 100 percent accurate, and variations like rain and overcast conditions can affect wind speed, but overall the forecasts are good enough for me to know whether to take the gear out of the closet or leave it there for the weekend, or reschedule some things so I can get in a morning session before work. I rarely get "skunked"--get ready yet get no wind -- and that's because I pay attention to the forecasts.

  50. We lived in New Orleans in the 60's and experienced Betsy which was a big smothering hurricane fanning out 75 miles from each side of the eye. Whereas Camille in 1968 was a tight category 5 hurricane. Nash Roberts the veteran weather man in New Orleans, explained that for every drop of Hg (mercury) by 1 it literally raised the water in the Gulf a foot in the eye. He forecast that the the Gulf water was raised 3 feet and the winds were 200 MPH driving a tidal wave of 30 feet that would hit the Gulf coast (near Waveland).
    People in a 4 story apartment building were staying to have a hurricane party. The next morning there was only the pipes sticking up out of the foundation. The power of Camille was overwhelming.

  51. @Tom osterman
    Hurricane Camille occurred in 1969.

  52. How was anyone caught off guard? The Governor and everybody else in authority have been been shouting since last Friday to run. Run silent, run deep, run amok, run with the wolves, run whatever. Just run. People still won’t listen. These people expect the NWS to tell them the block where landfall will occur, the wave heights and wind speed. No, no, no. The Governor says go, you bundle your family in a car and drive in a beeline away from the coast until no one recognizes your license plate. Wait 2 days in a motel and then drive back. It works, I.e., you and family are unhurt, almost 100% of the time.

  53. Youse must not have been paying attention. I wasn't surprised by the rapid intensification by the storm before it hit and I am just a rank amateur. But I've been living in hurricane country since 1962, and I've paid attention.

  54. Yesterday I went onto Twitter just before the hurricane came ashore and was greeted with a comment saying something to the effect of "The eye is just fine...this is just liberal fake news." Today I went online and saw airplane videos showing the ground of Mexico Beach littered with matchsticks.

    So the question that came to mind: Why are these TV shows like HouseHunters on the air and who's behind them. Every time I flip on I see young couples or retirees hankering to buy beachfront property. And no house is closeenough to the ocean...it has to be right at the shorelline. What's the flood insurance payments like? Are don't they believe they need any?

  55. I won't write about Global warming as people who know hoe to write have already made comment in reference to that.
    I notice most of the buildings are completely destroyed and a few that were standing and had only damage to the roof.
    I am curious why.
    Did the storm's wind not hit these buildings or were they built in a way that stopped them from falling.
    I know something about this.
    There is a miss conception that the windows should be open letting the air into the building reducing the pressure on the exterior of the building preventing it from being blown down.
    This isn't the way it is.
    You need to do the opposite.
    You should reinforce all possible openings like windows so the wind does enter the inside and destroy the building in the interior and the exterior and make the building more rigid
    I believe the shape of the building will help as well.
    The only construction that would keep a building from suffering any damage is one with concrete with metal bars reinforcing the structure.
    That is very expensive and most can not afford it so even if it is the best way to construct a building it isn't the solution.

  56. For those who want to believe that climate change is not a present and imminent threat to the survival of our planet and atmosphere as we know it, I ask you this....

    What harm is there in our simply considering that maybe, just maybe, climate change is real? What harm is there in changing our habits regarding our use of resources... in utilizing greener forms of energy...in flying less often and opting for travel by boat, train, bus or car instead...in buying used clothing, used furniture, instead of always insisting on 'new'.....in donating unwanted yet perfectly good items to other individuals or organizations, instead of mindlessly tossing things into the garbage/landfills...in letting our lawns go 'natural' instead of applying deadly chemicals to them.... What harm is there in doing all these things...in changing our lifelong habits?

    As in all things, is it not better to err on the side of Caution??

    I see all these recent heatwaves, deadlier hurricanes, wildfires, etc. as manifestations of Mother Nature crying out to us....trying to give us one last chance to sit up and take notice!

  57. anyone else feel as though the words "historic storm" are being used to describe literally every hurricane that has hit the U.S. in the past few years?

  58. "Increasingly, climate change is part of the dangerous mix as well."

    But our elected leaders, POTUS, Congress, et al. and many religious leaders tell us that there is no "climate change". They wouldn't knowingly lie to us, would they?

    If so, why?

    As has been said, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature".

  59. Some how I can't get over the idea this is the climate change piece that was written and went unpublished about Florence. Had Florence gone to a Cat 4 we could say it became so because of climate change. Cat 2 is not as impressive. Change the name and place we have another example of climate change. I'm not denying climate change but all the political and economic capital to be gained why not use science as propaganda to achieve some agenda and get Democrats votes.

    Whatever it is there has to be a plan in place. We're going to have to spend trillions on our infrastructure to lessen its effects . If your agenda is rapid population reduction, turning back the clock to ten thousand years ago and destroying the world's poor chances of getting ahead. You need a better plan.

  60. Off guard? Only if you live on another planet. With the gulf so warm what would you expect. The trend, remember Houston, has been rapid intensification. All factors lined up positively here and pointed to this result. The future is now.

  61. Dear Mr. Schwartz,
    You correctly give John Tyndall credit for demonstrating the CO2 and H2O were “greenhouse gases” but is was Svante Arrhenius who in 1896 put 2 and 2 together and predicted that burning fossil fuels would lead to global warming.

  62. Looks like Hiroshima after the bomb. The analogy should not be lost on greenhouse gas deniars. Why chance it?

  63. How much fuel oil was washed into the local estuaries and water systems? If hundreds of thousands of 200 gallon residential oil tanks were ruptured and washed out. Hundreds of cars and boats discharging their fuel tanks, many sunken out of sight indefinitely. Leaving oil spills on the sump basins that recharge aquifers.

    Perhaps it's time to examine the way we store the kinds of liquid fuel that can doom fresh water resources and fisheries, as well as other toxics, in flood prone areas.

  64. Correction: hundreds OR thousands of 200 gal. tanks. Even lower numbers are a sizeable spill.

  65. I'm sure the NHC forecasters saw what I saw, the Gulf SSTs in the path of the storm were anomalously high, up to 3C above a 30-yr mean, especially right in the area it intensified.

    I think Prof. Francis is correct. Look at the 300mb chart this morning, there is a trof that was stalled in mid-continent by a very strong ridge to the east that also slowed the storm allowing it more time to feed off of the Gulf SST. Now look at the trof....it has regressed (once again, this has been going on for about 7-10 years) to the W. Coast as that high intensifies. This has slowed the recurvature of the storm but given it enough "room" to begin its journey NE on its northern periphery. It is on the descending motion side of a jet stream that should suppress it somewhat along with increasing upper level shear. It could revive into a N.Atlantic storm.

    Expect "recycled" deep convection in the area affected by the storm, possible tornadoes, as the ground is saturated; especially if that jet system has streaks in it that can cause localized uplift enhancing the deep convection.

    Keep your eyes on that Atlantic upper level ridge. It has changed the storm track well known to older meteorologists, moving it northward. This is in line with Prof. Francis's ideas.