Here's why hurricane forecasting is getting better

  • An $83.5 million investment in the National Weather Service has improved the technology for forecasting storms.
  • Its new storm-surge warning system was first used for Hurricane Harvey.
  • The improved technology has decreased the average error in forecasting models.

As Hurricane Irma closes in on Florida and the effects of Harvey are still felt, one under-the-radar trend has been the improvement in tropical storm forecasts.

That's been part of a big effort for the federal government's National Weather Service. After the massive impact five years ago of Hurricane Sandy — which caused $70 billion in damage — Congress allocated more than $80 million in supplemental funding to help the meteorological agency.

That money has been spent on all kinds of new technology, according to David Novak, director of the agency's Weather Prediction Center. It has been invested in improved supercomputers, more observation data points and increasingly advanced scientific models. All that improved technology has decreased the average error in forecasting models.

"One of the biggest advancements we've seen is the GOES-16 satellite," Novak said, "which provides minute-by-minute visual pictures of these systems." GOES-16 allows them to see storms as they're building, giving forecasters a jump on the formation process.

"Our supercomputer investment over the past years has been substantial," Novak said. That investment over the past two years has given them a 3x boost in processing power, which increases the speed of computations for more and more accurate forecasts.

Days ago, Hurricane Irma was forecast to travel west through the Caribbean, rolling over islands including St. Martin and Puerto Rico, before turning north to Florida. So far, that prediction has proved right, and Florida is bracing for the storm to hit this weekend.

Irma was downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane on Friday morning, but that's still a dangerous storm capable of causing widespread and severe damage.

The latest improvement at the National Weather Service is a new storm-surge warning, which was used for the first time during Hurricane Harvey. The idea is that a hurricane may have heavier rain in one place and bigger winds in another, but where the sea level rises may actually be somewhere else. Forecasting that is key to people's safety.

All these advancements are an example of how big-spending technology investments can make a difference not just in the private sector but in government too. President Donald Trump's proposed budget would cut the weather service's funding by about 6 percent, according to the Verge.

Even with all this technology and computational power, the human element is still important, Novak said.

"I can't stress this enough. Models and observations are the base infrastructure that allows human forecasters to do better forecasts," he said.