Where are the Hurricanes?



The chemical blogosphere is pretty quiet.  Even Derek Lowe isn’t posting, so it’s time to talk about something NOT making the news — e.g. hurricanes.   All sorts of hellfire and damnation has been predicted for the current hurricane season.  But it is now 20 July and there has been just one hurricane (the only named storm so far), which hit Mexico 110 miles south of Brownsville, Texas.  By definition, the hurricane season stretches from 1 June to 30 November.  But most occur in July, August and September.  I grew up 1000 feet from the Atlantic ocean and can’t recall any in November (Nor’easters yes, hurricanes no). 

Here are a few of the dire predictions so far 

NOAA issued its 2010 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook on May 27, 2010. According to the forecast, there is an 85% change of an above-average hurricane season in 2010. We can expect an “active to extremely active” season

On June 21, Joe Bastardi, Chief Hurricane Meteorologist for AccuWeather.com, revised his earlier forecast to predict that 18 to 21 named storms will occur in the 2010 hurricane season, four of which are expected to occur during July. The revised forecast expects five or six of the named storms to be hurricanes.  My brother says that if you listened to AccuWeather, you’d never go outdoors. 

Dr. William Gray and Dr. Phillip Klotzbach of Colorado State University‘s Tropical Meteorology Projecthave published their scheduled June 2 update to their 2010 hurricane season forecast.The famed forecasting team now predicts as many as 18 named storms, an increase of two since the original forecast on Dec. 9. According to the updated forecast, we can expect 10 hurricanes to form in the Atlantic basin, up from 8 in the original forecast. As in the initial forecast, five hurricanes are expected to become major hurricanes (Category 3, 4, or 5 on the Saffir/Simpson scale). The revised numbers were based on the above-average warm waters in the Atlantic and the likelihood that a weak La Nina will form in the Pacific Ocean. Gray and Klotzbach will issue their final forecast for the 2010 season on August 4

Amusing no?  A final forecast for a season effectively ending less than 3 months later, issued two months after the season has begun.  Time for a quote from Neils Bohr (which is as close to chemistry as this post will get) “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

Maybe we’ll have a slambang finish, but this is yet another reason why I don’t trust models in general, climate models in particular.  For details see https://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/i-dont-trust-models-in-general-climate-models-in-particular/

A final semantic point.  After the really bad year with Katrina, etc. etc.  similar apocalyptic predictions were made, but nothing much happened.  The powers that be then took to calling weather disturbances  tropical cyclones.  Now cyclones in the Bay of Bengal can be  terrible things, and Nargis, killed over 100,000 people over there  in 2008.  But a cyclone over there has to have winds greater than 74 mph (making it a hurricane by our Atlantic standards), while over here anything with a vortex pattern of winds and some rain comes under the rubric of tropical cyclone.  This includes the nonentity known as the tropical depression (winds under 39 mph), and the more severe (but still nothing much) tropical storm — winds between 40 and 73 miles an hour.  

This is all fairly harmless once you know how the terms are defined, but there are a lot of players out there with a good deal of political investment in making things seem dire and terrible.  

Presently (10 PM EDT 20 July) this is all we have on the horizon.  “A tropical wave (Invest 97L) between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic has continued to become more organized today, and is a threat to develop into a tropical depression as early as Wednesday morning.”  Pretty small beer.  




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  • Yggdrasil  On July 21, 2010 at 12:20 am

    There are significant differences between weather prediction and climate prediction. Climate prediction can be much more reliable than weather prediction because climate models examine trends that are averaged over space (looking at large regions or the entire Earth versus weather in a specific region) and time (looking at trends across many years versus trying to guess the conditions tomorrow). Weather prediction is akin to trying to predict whether the next coin flip will be heads or tails. Climate prediction is more like trying to guess the number of heads when you flip the coin 100 times.

    I also wonder if all of the oil in the Atlantic is altering weather patters in that region. Since it sits on the surface of the ocean and covers such a large area, it seems like it could have significant effects on evaporation and water temperature.

  • luysii  On July 21, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Agree. Aspiring docs are taught that the difference between the current emotional state (e.g. the affect usually) and mood, is the difference between weather and climate. Depression and mania are more properly called mood disorders.

    Interesting idea about the oil in the gulf. I though casting oil on troubled waters was thought to calm things down. Not so, here in the states.

  • Wavefunction  On July 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    -This is all fairly harmless once you know how the terms are defined, but there are a lot of players out there with a good deal of political investment in making things seem dire and terrible.

    Yes, but there are also a lot of players who have long been interested in doing exactly the opposite. Since these players involve the fossil fuel industry, they are also generally more well-funded than the other side. Unfortunately they also seem to involve more unscientific types.

    One of the more thoughtful yet forceful proponents of climate change who actually understood the uncertainties in modeling the system was the Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider who died very suddenly of an embolism on Monday while on a flight. The whole issue lost a very valuable and sane-headed supporter.

  • luysii  On July 22, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Wavefunction: Quite true, but coming from the scientific side, it’s always easier to criticize those close to you (and hold them to their self-proclaimed high standards). But calling a tropical depression (maximum winds under 39 miles an hour) a tropical cyclone, while technically correct is intellectually tawdry.

    Medicine’s hands are far from clean in this regard. Consider the term “specific learning disability”. This is defined as “a major discrepancy between ability (intellect or aptitude) and achievement” [ Neurol. vol. 44 pp. 878 – 883 ’94 ]. It’s one of those phrases which sounds a lot better than what it denotes. Why not “idiopathic achivement failure” or “nonspecific learning disability.” It’s much better to say to a distressed parent — “Your child has specific learning disability”, implying that there is an equally ‘specific’ therapy (which didn’t really exist when I was practicing), rather than admit that you don’t know what is going on.

  • luysii  On July 24, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Bonnie was briefly a ‘tropical storm’, so it counts as named storm — #2 of the season. As far as I can tell the maximum wind strength was 40 mph, just 1 mph over the dividing line between tropical depression and tropical storm. Presently, there are no disturbances, even off the west coast of Africa or the Cape Verde islands.

    Now for a prediction of my own. If this hurricane season turns out to be as quiet as it is presently, someone, somewhere will find a way to link this to climate change and/or global warming. A theory that explains everything explains nothing.

  • Wavefunction  On July 26, 2010 at 10:15 am

    The forecast is over a very long time, so I would not attach any importance to a particular hurricane season. Those who would do so either to support or oppose a hypothesis would be well-advised to read about averages and the law of large numbers. But as Stephen Jay Gould said, the only measure of a distribution is the distribution itself. The problem with a theory like climate change is that it is very difficult to find specific instances which would falsify it, even if this does not mean that such instances don’t exist in principle.

  • luysii  On July 26, 2010 at 10:58 am

    ” I would not attach any importance to a particular hurricane season.” Neither would I, but EXACTLY this has been done Katrina and post-Katrina by the non-scientific types excited by climate change who have largely taken over the public debate. Also I do seem to remember that some scientific types DID predict more frequent and more severe weather disturbances as a result of climate change. He who lives by the hurricane, dies by the hurricane.

    You are clearly not a Popperian. To Karl Popper, if a theory wasn’t falsifiable, it wasn’t scientific. Popper had a big problem with theories that were only true statistically.

    I don’t know if Popper ever discussed evolutionary theory, which is hardly falsifiable. However the evidence for part of the theory (common descent) is overwhelming, particularly since you can plug some human proteins into yeast lacking them and have them function quite nicely.

  • Wavefunction  On July 26, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Interesting that you mention Popper. Several people, most notably the philosopher Willard Quine, have uncovered the limitations and flaws in his philosophy. For one thing, many scientists don’t instantly discard a theory if there’s evidence against it from a single experiment, no matter how solid. Quine disputed Popper’s falsification by noting that we cannot simply discard a theory in light of observations against it but need to use ‘prior knowledge’ to look at the falsifying observation in the right context. That is, we need to look at the observation in terms of the big picture. This is definitely how real scientists work. Nonetheless, falsification is undoubtedly a generally useful construct.

    Now apply this thinking to climate change, or for that matter, any system which is complex enough that it would be hard to falsify conjectures about it with a single experiment. In case of climate change however, I think the scientists are using precisely Quine’s criterion of prior knowledge to validate claims. This is actually quite a reasonable way to proceed. The problem however is not only that it would be difficult for single observations to falsify claims, but that it would be difficult to even think of what observations would do such a thing. This makes climate change a real beast in terms of prediction or falsification.

    By the way, the truly scientific types who predicted more severe weather disturbances were usually quite circumspect and made only statistical predictions. Thus I completely agree that those who would argue either against or for a stronger hurricane season are operating outside the bounds of reasonable scientific thinking. For a relatively level-headed treatment that tries not to pass judgment, I would recommend Chris Mooney’s “Storm World”.

    Unfortunately, most of the lay public and especially politicians do not understand the concept of withholding judgment. Their interests are in finding out what policies to enact now. To be frank it is impossible in my opinion to recommend specific policies except perhaps the general reduction of greenhouse gases. Yet the show goes on.

  • luysii  On August 4, 2010 at 10:05 am

    Well, we’ve have two more named storms (Bonnie and Colin) since 20 July. Both appear to have just made it into the category of tropical storms with winds of 40 mph. I asked at a weather site just how long they fit into the tropical storm category, since Colin died as a tropical storm this am. Here’s what I got

    luysii says:
    For how long was Colin a tropical storm and what were its highest sustained winds? Ditto for Bonnie. Is there anywhere I can find this out without bothering you?
    August 4, 7:33 AM

    response to luysii:
    Bonnie: 6:15 pm, 7/22 to 5:00 pm, 7/23 (< 24 hrs.)
    Colin: 5:00 am, 8/3 to 5:00 pm, 8/3 (< 12 hrs.)

    I doubt either was actually a tropical storm. It seems the NHC is concerned about getting its numbers for named storms this year.
    August 4, 8:09 AM

    Caveat Emptor

  • luysii  On August 5, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Well, Colin has turned back into a tropical storm and is likely to stay this way well into Sunday, so it counts. Maximum winds a measly 45 mph, and it appears to be 1500 miles directly east of the southern tip of Florida. So we’ve now had two (real) named storms, one of which was (briefly) a hurricane. Nothing else appears to be on the horizon at present.

  • luysii  On August 29, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Two weeks ago (15 August) I posted the following in Have a Good Week:

    “The Hurricane season remains incredibly quiet with 3 named storms, only one of which was a hurricane, and one of which barely made it into the tropical storm category with top winds of 40 mph, and all of this for less than 24 hours. Also looking at accuweather as of 12;20 PM EST, nothing in the North Atlantic is even being investigated as possibly having the potential of turning into a tropical depression.”

    Colin did turn back into a tropical storm far out in the Atlantic (I’m not sure if it became a hurricane or not).

    The last two weeks are in what is usually the height of the hurricane season, and two actual hurricanes have actually occurred and are still active, bring the number of named storms to 5 (4 by my count) and hurricanes to 3 or 4 (by my count). There will need to be one new named storm/week to make the dire predictions at the start of the season accurate. Basically we have 4 -5 weeks to go in the true hurricane season. I’ve never seen one in November. Stay tuned.


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