Animal-Shaped Clouds Aid Hurricane Forecasters
Girl's drawing sparks new way to gauge storm strength
MIAMI, Oct. 8 -- While hurricane track forecasts are better than they used to be -- five-day forecasts are now as accurate as three-day forecasts were 15 years ago -- there has been little improvement in predictions of a given storm's intensity.
But frustrated forecasters may now have a new and more reliable indicator of a hurricane's potential to gain strength: animal-shaped clouds.
Keep reading for more on the potential for animal-shaped clouds to improve hurricane forecasts. For local weather, see our full forecast through the holiday weekend.
National Hurricane Center director Bill Read traces the idea of using animal-shaped clouds as a proxy for storm strength back to his 5-year-old daughter.
"She came home from camp one day this past summer with a picture she drew for Daddy -- it showed clouds shaped like angry sharks circling around a hurricane's eye," said Read, who took over as NHC director in January. "I got to thinking my girl could be on to something here. Sure, a lot of people thought I was nuts when I told them my theory. But hey, it's not like anything else was working."
Many at NHC and throughout the meteorological community were indeed skeptical at first. In fact, Read was met with knee-slapping laughter when he introduced the concept at a July seminar for NHC staff.
"Honestly, I don't think even one person in the room started out thinking he was being serious," said a veteran NHC meteorologist who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation. "Then, once everyone realized this was no joke, there was a lot of jaw dropping and eye rolling."
However, an initial pilot project completed in August yielded a statistically significant connection between animal-shaped clouds around a hurricane's eye and the storm's current and future wind speed. High-resolution satellite imagery was used to examine more than 50 storms over the past 10 years. Clouds shaped like bears, elephants and lions were correlated with Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, while clouds looking like ducks, frogs and bunny rabits were more often associated with Category 1 and 2 storms.
By September, crewmembers of the U.S. Air Force Reserve's famed "hurricane hunters" -- a fleet of aircraft that fly into the heart of hurricanes to collect detailed storm data -- were scanning the sky for animal-shaped clouds with their own eyes. These up-close observations are expected to improve the effectiveness of algorithms designed to help satellites identify animal-shaped clouds on an operational basis.
"It's funny, because over the years these flights can get kind of boring. So as a group we had already taken to looking for shapes in the clouds in the same way kids on long road trips look for license plates from different states," said a reservist who refused to be named for fear of sheer embarrassment. "Now there's an element of seriousness to our fun and games. But believe me -- we're still keeping score."
Read is optimistic about the potential for animal-shaped clouds to improve hurricane intensity forecasts, but cautions they are not likely to be a cure-all.
"It's going to be a combination of research, technology and new ways of analyzing hurricanes that will get us to the finish line of more accurate intensity forecasts over the next five to 10 years," Read said. "I see cloud animals as yet another weapon in the arsenal of forecasting tools at our disposal."
| October 8, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
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