When Hurricane Michael barreled into southwest Georgia on Thursday night, it was the first category 3 hurricane to enter Georgia since 1898. It’s astonishing that this feat was accomplished not by a storm entering directly from the Atlantic Ocean, but from a storm entering the state from the southwest. Only an extremely powerful storm is capable of maintaining at least category-three level winds for a hundred miles across land. But again, Michael was no ordinary storm. Based on its barometric pressure of 919 MB, Hurricane Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the US. Had the National Hurricane Center raised the storm’s winds by just 1 mph, it would have been only the 4th category 5 hurricane to make a US landfall.
In the wake of Hurricane Michael’s destruction, many people have expressed dissatisfaction with a perceived lack of warning. As Marshall Shepherd, a professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Georgia, pointed out in a recent Forbes article about the media’s claim that it had no warning about the storm, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) had been issuing increasingly dire warnings for several days prior to landfall. So why then do people feel like they didn’t get adequate warning?
When We Can’t Accurately Predict Strength, We Aren’t Able to Provide Early Warning
For one thing, we’re still not great at predicting a storm’s strength. While forecasting a hurricane’s track has dramatically improved – NHC pegged the panhandle of Florida as the likely place of impact soon after Hurricane Michael’s formation -, forecasting intensification remains difficult. As we wrote earlier this year, NHC failed to accurately predict the rapid intensification of both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria last year.
The NHC also failed to accurately predict the rapid intensification of last month’s Hurricane Florence. That failure was of little consequence, though, since it happened far out in the Atlantic Ocean. It then failed to accurately predict the weakening of Florence as it approached the US east coast. While NHC did predict that Hurricane Michael would reach major hurricane status (winds above 110 mph) on October 8, it did not predict the storm would hit the Florida coast as the third most powerful US storm on record with winds of 155 mph.
Much of this unpredictability has to do with warmer oceans, which provide fuel for storms. The normally warm Gulf of Mexico was 2-4 °F above average when Hurricane Michael trekked across it this week. Similarly, the waters of the north Atlantic have been warmer-than-average at higher latitudes this year allowing storms like Florence to intensify in areas not normally associated with intensification.
Not Wanting to Be Fooled Again, the Media Failed to Take Notice of Michael
But NHC’s failure in predicting Hurricane Michael’s rapid intensification is only partially to blame for feelings of unpreparedness or lack of warning. The national media was nearly silent as the storm grew stronger and moved closer to Florida. Perhaps the media was still caught up in post-Brett Kavanaugh confirmation coverage or general Donald Trump news. But Donald Trump is in the news everyday and that hardly kept major news outlets from round-the-clock coverage leading up to the landfall of Hurricane Florence.
So why was so little coverage given to Hurricane Michael? Perhaps it’s because of the nature of Hurricane Florence. While Hurricane Michael formed only days before making landfall, Florence had been churning in the Atlantic for several weeks as a strong storm. This allowed models and predictions of an east coast landfall to trickle out to the media for many days.
Geography likely contributed to the disparate coverage as well. Major media outlets are often criticized for having an east coast bias, but the east coast is by far the most heavily populated part of the country. A hurricane making landfall anywhere north of Savannah or South of Jacksonville will immediately affect millions of people, which perhaps justifies greater coverage for storms like Hurricane Florence. Hurricane Michael, on the other hand, was projected to make landfall in a relatively sparsely populated area of the Gulf Coast. Perhaps more importantly, it was projected to make landfall in a much poorer area than almost anywhere on the east coast.
Perhaps the media also felt like it got fooled by Hurricane Florence. Forecasters had been predicting a strong category 4 landfall along a populated coast, but in the end the storm wandered into the North Carolina coast as a weakening category 1 storm. The media was then criticized for hype and exaggeration in its reporting. Certainly they didn’t want to be ridiculed again so soon after the Florence “debacle.”
But the destruction left by Hurricane Michael shows why hype is needed, particularly as the climate changes and accurately predicting a storm’s strength remains elusive. People need to prepare for the worst possible outcome. The National Hurricane Center’s warnings are essentially useless if the media fails to translate those warnings into adequate news coverage.
Allowing Meteorologists to Explain the Science Behind Forecasts May Prevent Us All From Being Made A Fool
If the media is afraid to hype storms so as to avoid being “fooled” by a failed forecast then perhaps the media should start treating people like they’re capable of thinking critically. We need to allow meteorologists more time to explain the intricacies behind forecasting hurricanes. If people were better informed of all the elements and factors that affect a storm’s strength and track, perhaps they would be less dismissive when models and meteorologists fail in their predictions.
But for a small layer of dry air that crept into Hurricane Florence, which hindered the storm’s ability to organize and strengthen, it’s likely North Carolina would have been hit by a strong category 4 storm as predicted. Similarly, understanding that if Hurricane Michael could survive the influence of dry air and shear to its west, it could take advantage of abnormally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico to rapidly intensify prior to landfall. While Florence was unable to withstand those external elements, Michael shrugged them off and rapidly gained strength. These were factors being monitored by meteorologist and weighed by forecasting models, but few consumers gained any insight into this process. But insight is exactly what we need.
For example, Levi Cowan of Florida State University provides in-depth video analysis of forecasts as storms approach or threaten the U.S on his site Tropical Tidbits. In contrast to what you read in major media outlets or see on television, he explains the atmospheric conditions that affect the storms to give insight into the factors being considered by meteorologists at NHC as they’re creating official forecasts. This requires more than just a minute of air time or a few sentences in an article.
Spreading this knowledge could help people appreciate the uncertainty of forecasts and the possibility of danger on a more fundamental level. When a storm fails to live up to its hype, people may feel less complacent or dismissive of the next storm if they understand the complexity and difficulty of accurately predicting a storm’s strength. Of course, we still need dire warnings from NHC and the media should still devote more time to focusing on the most likely scenario, but we’ve got to allow and encourage people to think critically. That may just prevent all of us from being made a fool.