How Scientists Are Predicting the Path of Hurricane Irene–And Why We're Better At It Than Ever Before

By Valerie Ross | August 26, 2011 12:34 pm

The Eastern Seaboard is warily watching the progress of Hurricane Irene, wondering what course the storm will take and just how ferocious it will be. Predicting the path of a hurricane still involves some guesswork—but thanks to rapidly improving computer models and data-gathering abilities, Tekla Perry reports in IEEE Spectrum, scientists are able to make more accurate forecasts farther in advance than they were even five or ten years ago. In fact, the predicted track of a hurricane over the next 48 hours today is as accurate as a prediction for the next 24 hours was 10 years ago—a day that can make a big difference for people deciding whether to evacuate and how to prepare before the storm. Boosts in computing power mean scientists can run more, faster, and more detailed simulations of the storm, and technologies like Dopper radar provide detailed data on wind speed, air pressure, and temperature as storms progress.

Irene has been a relatively easy storm to predict so far, Frank D. Marks Jr., a NOAA hurricane researcher, told Spectrum, but that doesn’t mean scientists are able to tell residents of any particular city exactly what to expect, especially a few days out:

“People want to know, come Sunday, how big the storm surge will be in New Jersey and New York, what the wind speed will be within a knot or two, how much rain they’ll get, how fast the hurricane will be traveling,” Marks says. “And we’re not just there yet, though some models this year are showing a lot of promise.”

Read more at IEEE Spectrum.

Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

  • Bruce Parker

    The only hurricane in recorded history whose eye passed over New York City arrived there on the evening of September 3, 1821. Its 13-foot storm surge flooded the lower end of Manhattan up to Canal Street. Ships were carried up onto the shore and numerous wharves were damaged. The Battery was completely destroyed. A few miles north the storm surge demolished a bridge that spanned the Harlem River from (what is now) East 114th Street to the northwest end of Ward’s Island. Although there was a great deal of damage, New Yorkers were actually lucky, because the hurricane struck at low tide. This hurricane was only a Category 2, and followed a path vary similar to Irene’s path. This story and other amazing stories about storm surges can be found in the recent book, “The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters”, by Bruce Parker.


    Maybe scientists are better at predicting hurricanes for the same reason that the gov’t is better at predicting terrorism: They’re not “predicting” it–they’re steering it. Can’t rule it out because it *was* impossible. The internet was impossible at one time.

  • Arthur Dent, you have stumbled on our evil plan. Us mad scientists have had the power to control hurricanes for years. You think Katrina was an accident?! Muhahahahahaha!

  • WixNoo

    No doubt that was one wacky storm dude.

  • dave chamberlin

    It is quite common in the south for residents told to evacuate their homes because of a possible hurricane caused storm surge to ignore the order. They are faced with two bad options. 1)Evacuate and not be allowed back to their home for a week or more. If they have experienced serious water damage in their home they can lose everything to mold. 2) Risk their lives and stay put knowing that they can protect their property by tarping the damaged roof themselves and to contol the spread of high humidity caused mold by firing up a gas powered compressor to turn on their air conditioner and dehumidify the house. Our news stations keep ranting on how stupid people are to ignore warnings to leave but sadly this now institutionalized system of blockading homeowners quick return to their property is creating the choice taken by many to risk their lives to protect everything they own.


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