Friday, January 11, 2008

2007 Storm Season In Review

The race was on. Was it going to become the last storm of the 2007 hurricane season (the name would be Pablo) or the first storm of the 2008 season (the name would be Arthur)?

That was the dilemma facing forecasters at the National Hurricane Center as the new year approached. An area of disturbed weather in the far eastern Atlantic Ocean was gaining tropical characteristics and might develop into tropical cyclone. But, when?

If the system was named before the clock struck midnight on December 31 st it would be called Pablo and be part of the 2007 season, and if it formed on the first day of the new year it would be named Arthur and be the first storm of the 2008 season.

"The system has been producing gale-force winds, mainly to the north and east of its circulation center," senior hurricane specialist Richard Knabb told the Miami Herald. "It could become a sub-tropical system."

As it turned out, the system fizzled and eventually fell apart meaning the 2007 hurricane season has officially come to a close. The final tally:

14 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

Still, not everyone agrees with those numbers.

"They seem to be naming a lot more than they used to," Neil Frank, a former director of the National Hurricane Center told the Houston Chronicle. "This year, I would put four storms in the very questionable category, and maybe even six."

Frank, now the chief meteorologist for a Houston TV station, says Chantal, Eric, Gabrielle, Ingrid, Jerry and Melissa may not deserve tropical storm status because each system had a relatively high central pressure. Each system did have sustained winds of 39 mph, the criteria to be classified as a tropical storm, but only for a brief period of time.

Frank told the newspaper that he prefers using the central pressure to measure the intensity of a tropical system, because it can be directly measured by aircraft dropping an instrument into a tropical cyclone. "In the past, we would have waited to see if another observation supported naming the system," Frank said. "We would have been a little more conservative."

Officials had the National Hurricane Center believe that wind speeds are the true indicator of a storm's status. "For at least the last two decades, I am certain most, if not all, the storms named this year would have also been named," said Bill Read, deputy director of the hurricane center told the Chronicle.

Thanks to new technology, like the QuickSCAT satellite, more accurate wind measurements are available. Read argues that it only makes sense to use the best technology to quickly determine if a system has reached tropical storm strength.

"An oncologist today would use the latest technology for determining and assessing one's cancer," Read said. "Would you use a doctor who only used X-rays instead of the latest MRI?"

Determining an accurate account of tropical storm activity is important in a number of areas. The insurance industry uses the numbers to help set homeowner rates, researchers need the data to determine trends in hurricane activity and scientists use the information to determine whether global warming is influencing hurricane activity.

Before the age of weather satellites, no one really knew how many tropical storms and hurricanes formed each year, especially in the far reaches of the ocean. Today, however, every suspicious swirl is closely examined, just like that disturbance in the eastern Atlantic last weekend.

Was it going to be the last storm of 2007, the first storm of 2008 or another candidate for controversy? Maybe it was a good thing it didn't develop after all.

Posted at 12:42 PM