Predicting Landfall Probabilities

Scientists discover link between hurricane tracks and climate variability.

Coral Gables (September 14, 2011) — Scientists at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science have found an intriguing relationship between hurricane tracks and climate variability. Angela Colbert, a graduate student in the Division of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography, studied data from the Atlantic gathered between 1950 and 2010, unlocking some noteworthy results that appear in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.

Storms were classified into three different categories based on their projected paths: straight, recurving landfall, or recurving ocean. Storms that develop farther south and/or west in the tropical Atlantic are more likely to become straight-moving storms that ultimately affect the Gulf Coast of the United States and the Western Caribbean. However, storms that form more north or east have a greater chance to threaten the Eastern seaboard or simply recurve into the open ocean.

Among the most significant findings: El Niño seasons are associated with fewer storms overall, and those storms that do form are less likely to make landfall due to changes in the atmospheric steering currents.

“In a typical El Niño season, we found that storms have a higher probability of curving back out into the ocean as opposed to threatening to make landfall along the East Coast of the U.S. due to a change in the circulation across the Atlantic,” said Colbert, who collaborated with Brian Soden, professor of meteorology and physical oceanography. “This is important for not only weather forecasting but also for insurance companies, which can use these findings when determining seasonal and yearly quote rates.”

In contrast, La Niña seasons, which occur when the equatorial Pacific Ocean surface is cooler than normal, are associated with both greater numbers of storms and an increased likelihood that they will make landfall.

“Growing up in Florida, I have always been fascinated not only with hurricanes but with severe weather in general,” Colbert said. “I wanted to better understand tropical cyclones and why they sometimes seem to follow certain tracks throughout a season so that we can better prepare for them.”

Colbert is a graduate of Palm Harbor University High School. She received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics education from the University of Central Florida and her master’s degree in meteorology and physical oceanography from the University of Miami. She is a member of the American Meteorological Society and American Geophysical Union and serves as president of UM’s Marine Science Graduate Student Organization.

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