Recently, Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on dozens of islands in the Caribbean, the entire peninsula of Florida, and even southern states like Georgia and South Carolina. One of the major problems with this storm was the uncertainty surrounding the model forecasting. Phrases like “European model” and “American model” became common lingo, but few people know the differences between them and what they actually mean. The European model is the ECMWF, or the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. This center is an independent intergovernmental organization supported by 34 nations with some of the largest and fastest-computing supercomputers in Europe. The American model is the GFS, or Global Forecast System which is under the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). One of the major differences between these models is the overhead structure: independence vs reporting to a center which reports to an administration which reports to a specific government. Due to overhead and the need to report up to different levels of government, the GFS is definitely more restricted and reliant on specific approvals. The ECMWF, on the other hand, has more funding, and a larger reach since 34 nations are involved.
Due, in part to more flexibility, the ECMWF tended to be more reliable when forecasting more than about 24 hours. News sources, like CNN, noted that the European model tended to be more accurate from the very beginning concerning where Irma would make landfall in Florida. The ECMWF always showed Irma taking a more westerly track across Florida, but, like with all forecasts, there was uncertainty about precise landfall. The GFS originally predicted Irma missing a direct hit with Florida and staying east in the Atlantic, then as Irma got closer, the GFS slowly moved westward to align with the ECMWF. Due to this uncertainty, a lot of people fled from Miami (and surrounding eastern areas) westward to places like Tampa and Orlando or northward to Georgia, which ended up being in Irma’s path. Additionally, due to the original easterly forecast of Irma, a lot of citizens in the Florida Keys (especially places like Key West) did not evacuate. By the time all models agreed that Irma was headed for the mid- to lower-Keys and the western coast, it was too late to safely evacuate.
As is fairly apparent, this hurricane season has already been one for the record books. It begs the question, “Will it continue to be this bad in the future?” In a recent publication from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, preliminary research shows that is a correlation between anthropogenic (human-related) climate change and increased hurricane intensity. It is likely that tropical cyclones will be more intense on average, and that each storm will produce more rainfall on average. As seen with Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Jacksonville, rainfall and flooding is a big problem with intense hurricanes, so more accurate forecasting of hurricane paths is important for citizens to be prepared, allowing them to stay safe. With enough warning, preparations can be made which can help save human life and loss of property. It all relates back to one common idea: it all starts with advanced and accurate forecasting, and properly informing the public of the forecasts.
Obviously, there is no way to prevent hurricanes or their damage to populated areas, but there can be improvements made to preparations and predictions. South Florida updated their building codes due to the damage from Andrew, and it is plausible that those codes will be revised and further enforced in the aftermath of Irma. Looking at building codes is just the start. Societies keep moving closer to waterfronts which is very dangerous in this case. It is important to look at location, and even exceed existing building codes to be better prepared to withstand storms such as Irma. As for better predictions, it is important to look at numerous sources. In this case, if news outlets and officials had put more emphasis on the ECMWF, then western Florida may have fared better. Along the same thought, a better educated public is important. There are numerous sources predicting weather patterns, and although they may not be correct 100% of the time, they can give a good idea of what’s coming. Giving the public these tools so that they do not rely on biased news sources is important. Had the citizens of Southern Florida been more informed on their own, then more may have evacuated, which could save more human life in the future. A more informed public also comes from education; if schools or colleges offered more courses about reading data or basic meteorology courses in areas that would be readily affected by severe weather events such as Irma, would help the public make more informed decisions when looking at the complex figures shown in mainstream news.
Lastly, there needs to be increased information about the severity of weather and natural disaster. Luckily, it appears most people took Irma as seriously as they should have, but those who did not evacuate because they thought it was exaggerated in the news, grew to regret that decision. Severe weather should never be taken lightly; it can intensify on a dime or change course and put unprepared people in danger. In Irma’s case, at least in Southeastern Florida, there was criticism of people who fled early in the week. But these people had minimal traffic and much better luck with getting gas and faced little to no danger in doing so. Those who waited until the last minute found themselves having to choose between weathering the storm in a subpar location or risk running out of gas/getting stuck in traffic trying to flee. Advanced, accurate forecasting can better convince those in danger to flee when they may have otherwise stayed. Always err on the side of caution when future events like this happen.