Published May 28. 2013 4:00AM
The disaster relief bill, passed by Congress in the wake of superstorm Sandy's strike last Oct. 29, included $25 million in supplemental funding to upgrade National Weather Service forecasting equipment. While there was some debate at the time about spending not directly related to relief efforts, this investment (trimmed to $23.7 million by sequestration) should prove to be well worth it in terms of lives saved and damage mitigated.
The money will allow the NWS to upgrade its forecasting computers, which are being consistently out performed by the European computer models. The European model, for example, picked up very early that Sandy would merge with a non-tropical storm system, become a large hybrid storm, and take a very unusual westward path toward the New Jersey coast. The U.S. model struggled with the complexity of the storm and was late to the dance when it came to predicting its atypical track.
Forecasters like consistency, particularly when it comes to dangerous weather systems.
The upgrade to the U.S. computer modeling should bring it more into line with European forecasts, providing consistency and greater forecast confidence. Earlier warnings can provide time for evacuations, saving lives, and provide more preparation time to button up and reduce damage.
Conversely, missed forecasts can lead to costly, unnecessary evacuations and generate cry-wolf skepticism among the populace the next time a storm hits.
It appears the era of unusually active tropical storm activity will continue in 2013. NOAA this past week issued its outlook for the hurricane season that begins June 1, stating it will likely be "above normal and possibly extremely active."
Contributing factors include above normal water temperatures and wind patterns conducive to tropical storm development.
As bad as was Sandy, it was technically not a hurricane when it hit New Jersey, its $50 billion in widespread damage caused more by it enormous size than its winds. The last time a major hurricane made landfall in the United States was Wilma striking Florida in 2005. It is the longest stretch without a major hurricane strike in recorded U.S. weather history.
Odds favor that streak will run out and the United States needs the best forecasting equipment to prepare when it does.