Explain that in 140 characters or less.
What began on August 17th as a strong tropical disturbance near Africa ended Florida’s decade-long hurricane drought two weeks later, but the story didn’t end there. The 20-day telenovela brought as many twists and turns as the last three episodes of Bachelor in Paradise (complete with tropical locales). It was an exercise in emotional fragility for weather forecasters. As one of my colleagues best put it, the storm that wouldn’t form was also the one that wouldn’t go away.
Long-lived hurricanes are nothing new. They’re drama queens (and kings) that turn weather coverage into marathons. Throughout its 34-year history, The Weather Channel has tracked each and every tropical storm and hurricane clear across the Atlantic, but somehow this last 20-day saga felt different. We’ve entered a new age of social media where information, both good and bad, ripples out with the tap of a finger. Tweets travel faster than tremors of an earthquake and traditional media is forced to react to the shifting grounds beneath.
But hurricanes haven’t adapted to the social media world. They don’t bring the instant gratification of a hard-hitting, action-packed football game. Hurricanes are the baseball of weather events. They’re nine full innings and not every at-bat yields a highlight. You’ll have plenty of time for idle chit-chat, stretching, and the occasional concession. The nuances require a long attention span and, for the breakneck pace of 21st century America, it’s easy to lose interest when days stretch into weeks.
The disturbance that eventually became Hermine went into extra innings over the Labor Day weekend. It brought to bear some real communications challenges that the weather community hasn’t faced since the dawn of modern-day social media. We knew they were coming but the growing pains weren’t without surprises.
1. Extended coverage
If, during the past several weeks, you found yourself asking, “what’s an invest?” then welcome to the new age of socially driven coverage. The procedural term invented by the National Hurricane Center for the National Hurricane Center to identify tropical disturbances worth investigating (hence the shorthand “invest”) with their computer models has been thrust from obscurity into common vernacular, becoming a pseudo tropical-cyclone-like classification. Invests don’t form nor do they guarantee something will form, but based on the attention they get, one might think they do or will.
Five years ago we didn’t track invests — at least not publicly. Five years ago the National Hurricane Center didn’t issue five day outlooks complete with cone-like formation zones. It wasn’t until 2010 that hurricane watches were extended from 36 to 48 hours. We’ve extended the forecast and what’s being forecast, but over the past decade the United States has been on a lucky streak, with record low hurricane activity, including, up until three weeks ago, the longest hurricane drought for the most hurricane prone state in the union. Even the Gulf of Mexico, the alley way for many of our deadliest, most intense hurricanes, hadn’t recorded a single hurricane in 1,080 days before Hermine, a drought the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Grover Cleveland administration (that’s over 130 years before a [pick your favorite candidate] administration). Infrequent hurricane events have become even less frequent.
So it’s no surprise the chatter starts sooner. When the National Hurricane Center clicks a button on their computer terminal to open an “invest,” Twitter tells us (an “invest” is born!). We track said invest with the scrutiny of a developed hurricane. Weather models are treated like sibling rivalries, with more attention given to the less temperamental ones.
The extended coverage gives us greater opportunity to raise awareness, but it also gives the public greater opportunity to tune us out. The science tells us there’s no skill in seven-to-ten day forecasts of tropical systems that haven’t formed (like invests). Of course that doesn’t prevent those forecasts from being shared. But what does the oversharing do to our credibility? Is it perceived as hype? Is it helpful to alert the public of a potential tropical threat that’s over a week out when our forecasts have no skill? Even if the 10-day forecasts offered some skill, what actions are required of the public a week out to prepare for an impending storm?
2. Hurricane watch for a tropical depression
It’s not every day that a Hurricane Watch is issued for a tropical depression. In fact, before Hermine (or rather the tropical depression that became Hermine), the National Hurricane Center had never issued a Hurricane Watch for a nameless tropical system. Hermine marked an important step forward for the hurricane warning system. In part, we’re issuing watches earlier than we did a decade ago, but we’ve also made important advances in forecasting intensity that make us more confident in our predictions.
The hurricane forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are the best out there. They act with steady, surgeon-like hands, keeping the bow of their ship pointed toward the waves even during the worst of storms. But even the most experienced captain will at times get blindsided by Mother Nature. If you’re an airline pilot, you hope the unexpected turbulence is at a high enough altitude to make the necessary corrections. If you’re a hurricane forecaster, you hope any unforeseen strengthening happens far away from land with time to adequately alert those in harm’s way.
It’s the nightmare scenario — that storm that defies all expectations, the one that no weather forecast model could’ve seen. This scenario happens almost every year. Take Julia last week. It may not have been the nightmare scenario, but it went from having a near zero percent chance of formation to being a full-fledged tropical storm over Florida only 12 hours later. Julia stayed weak, but not all quick hitters are Julia. For instance, Humberto in 2007 formed only 120 miles south of Galveston but rapidly strengthened into a 90 mph hurricane just 24 hours later as it was making landfall along the Texas coastline. The strengthening happened so quickly the National Hurricane Center didn’t issue their first hurricane warning until the center of the hurricane was just 15 miles from striking land.
Thankfully the worst of Humberto struck a remote wildlife refuge east of the heavily populated Houston/Galveston metro area, limiting the number of deaths and damage. Humberto was a teachable moment for hurricane forecasters. It reminded us that even today with all of our satellite, radar, and high-powered computer technology, we won’t always see our biggest storms coming.
So when a storm like Hermine enters a Gulf of Mexico flirting with near-record warmth during the most active stretch of the hurricane season, forecasters rightfully sit up straight. It’s not June or early July when the odds of a big blowout hurricane are low; it’s the month of Camille, Andrew, and Katrina. It’s playoff season, and with the bases loaded and the winning run on third, even the guy batting ninth can upset the season.
It’s easy to communicate the gravity of a hurricane with the picture of a hurricane, but what does a Hurricane Watch mean without the hurricane? If you’ve ever listened to a radio sportscall, you know words and tone matter most in the absence of pictures.
3. A post-tropical cyclone with tropical storm warnings expected to have hurricane-like impacts
Hurricane Sandy broke the mold as it morphed into a post-tropical cyclone just hours before landfall along the New Jersey coast in October of 2012. Although the storm struck with the fury of a hurricane, the National Hurricane Center decided early on not to issue hurricane warnings since the storm was expected to shed its tropical characteristics before crossing the coastline.
It was a complicated and controversial call. At the time the National Weather Service had no plan in place to issue tropical products — such as a hurricane warning — for a post-tropical system. They worried that issuing a hurricane warning for a post-tropical cyclone might either break their system for distributing critical, life-saving information or mislead the public (or both). But in the wake of Sandy, the National Weather Service found that for post-tropical cyclones that pose a significant threat to life and property, the issuance of traditional tropical watches and warnings is often justified. The option for the National Hurricane Center to issue tropical storm or hurricane watches and warnings for systems that don’t meet the strict meteorological definition of a tropical storm or hurricane has since become known as the Sandy rule.
Hermine wasn’t the first time the Sandy rule was invoked (see Arthur in 2014), but it was the first time the Sandy rule was invoked for the people impacted by Sandy. So naturally, invoking the Sandy rule for the Jersey coast less than four years after Sandy struck drew immediate comparisons. Would Hermine be as bad as Sandy? How would Hermine’s storm surge compare? The story quickly snowballed.
Can you really blame folks? Sandy was an emotional scar, and for many the wounds still haven’t fully healed. But Hermine was never Sandy. We knew that. Sure Hermine was bigger than most storms, but it was a dwarf star compared to the sun that was Sandy. Hermine’s storm surge had the potential of being higher in some spots than it was during Sandy but the overall scope and magnitude were never comparable. Even so Hermine’s storm surge was potentially life-threatening. Sandy or not, that should be enough.
The comparisons will always come. People almost instinctively draw on past experience as a measure of future impacts. The problem is we don’t have a lot of past experience from which to pull for post-tropical cyclones. Heck, even many long-time residents that live along our most vulnerable coastal areas have little experience with hurricanes. The odds of any person or place ever experiencing the worst of a strong hurricane is low. Even for those that have been struck, the next hurricane will unlikely leave the same footprint as the last one. Each and every hurricane brings a different personality and is remembered for different reasons.
So the post-tropical cyclone with tropical storm warnings expected to have hurricane-like impacts may not have the same impacts as the last post-tropical cyclone with tropical storm warnings from which we expected hurricane-like impacts. That message doesn’t exactly fit our click-bait culture (“This storm isn’t like the last one…”), and the 237 characters is a Twitter no-go.
We live in a sound-bite driven, increasingly short attention span society. It’s not a complaint as much as it is a reality. We’re all scrambling to adjust. We’ve had practice with other weather events. Quick hitting tornadoes happen almost routinely and bring immediate, compelling video from a legion of storm chasers tailor made for Americans on the go. But what about the hurricanes? How do we prevent the spread of misinformation when hours turn into days which turn into weeks? How do we keep the public on its toes in the absence of video and without resorting to hype?
This blog alone is over 10,000 characters. That’s more than 70 tweets. Very few readers will make it this far, but for the ones that have I’d ask you to consider: how do we handle long winded hurricane communications in a 140 character world?