Batten down the hatches. It’s going to be another year of major storms on the East Coast. How can we be sure? Well, the experts say so.
“Federal forecasters marked Monday’s start of Hurricane Awareness Week by predicting a busier-than-usual season,” The Miami Herald reported on May 20, “with 11 to 15 named tropical storms that grow into six to nine hurricanes.”
Michael Brown, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tried to boil down the threat: “Let me put it in layman’s terms. It could be really bad.”
Should we be worried? Maybe not.
William Gray is a professor and hurricane specialist at Colorado State University. He also predicts Atlantic basin hurricane activity will be “well above average” in 2003.
Let’s consider Gray’s record. From the safety of Fort Collins, Co. -- which, luckily, has never taken a direct hit from a hurricane -- he and his team issue annual predictions about upcoming storm seasons. In December 2002, the team forecast: “12 named tropical storms will form in the Atlantic basin between June 1 and Nov. 30. Of these, eight will become hurricanes and three are anticipated to evolve into intense hurricanes.” That would represent the “well above average” number of storms.
Sounds frightening. And it could happen. But it closely mirrors an announcement exactly one year earlier: “Gray and his colleagues predict 13 named tropical storms will form in the Atlantic Basin between June 1 and November 30, 2002. Of these, eight will become hurricanes and four are anticipated to evolve into intense major hurricanes.” That didn’t quite pan out. 2002 was a quiet season, with 12 named storms, but only 4 hurricanes and 2 intense hurricanes.
Gray’s team has also missed in the other direction. For the 2001 storm season, they predicted five named storms and two major hurricanes. That year brought us nine named storms, four of them major.
This is not an attempt to pick on Gray or his hurricane forecasting team. Obviously it’s difficult to make a prediction about what the weather will be outside my door tomorrow, so it’s next to impossible to make a prediction about what the weather will be half a world away six months from now.
The question is, since forecasting is such an inexact science, why does the media report every long-term pronouncement as if it’s certain to come true? Journalists tend to be the most skeptical people around, except when it comes to weather stories. Reporters treat the forecasters’ predictions as gospel truth, but never give us some background by mentioning how far off those forecasters have been in the past.