* Hurricane intensity forecasts still a work in progress
* Significant gains might be years away, forecasters warn
* Intensity change forecasts seen as key to public safety
By Tom Brown
MIAMI, May 18 (Reuters) - Bill Read, the top U.S. hurricane forecaster for the last 4-1/2 years, says researchers may be edging closer to finding the “holy grail” of hurricane forecasting.
But Read, who steps down as director of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center on June 1, acknowledged in an interview it could be the end of this decade before there is any significant improvement in forecasting the rapid intensity changes in a hurricane.
“That’s still the holy grail if you will in hurricane forecast research, to try to capture those rapid changes in intensity,” Read told Reuters.
Researchers have cut their errors in predicting the direction or track of a hurricane by about half in the past 15 years, giving people living in hurricane danger zones more time to get out of harm’s way.
While bolstering public safety, good track forecasts also give oil companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico more lead time to evacuate off-shore rigs and secure their facilities ahead of approaching storms.
But Read and other leading forecasters say there has been almost no improvement in their ability to foresee the explosive growth that can convert a mild Category 1 hurricane into a destructive Category 5.
“For intensity, we haven’t improved anything significant,” Read said Thursday on the sidelines of the annual Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale. “We don’t even perhaps have a complete physical understanding of what causes the rapid change of intensity,” he added.
“If we can’t forecast that, it’s hard for people to make the right decisions on evacuees. That’s why it’s so important.”
Read said a research program dubbed the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, now entering its fourth year under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had begun to show signs of progress in solving some of the mysteries of intensity forecasting.
But building better computer models to use as tools for intensity forecasting, which is the ultimate goal, will still depend on getting more information from inside hurricanes about things like the complex interaction between eyewalls, where the strongest winds are located, the sky above and the sea below.
“By the end of the decade you might see some improvement. But I would couch that in the ‘hopeful’ rather than the ‘I guarantee it’ category,” Read said.
Philip Klotzbach, who leads the Colorado State University hurricane forecasting team together with forecast pioneer Dr. William Gray, said it may take even more than a decade before there are any real breakthroughs in intensity forecasting and the ability to predict top hurricane windspeeds.
“I don’t think we necessarily understand all the physics yet of what goes into causing a hurricane to intensify,” said Klotzbach. “You’ve got to have observations to feed into your model,” added Klotzbach, who also spoke in an interview at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference.
“There’s just a lot of internal characteristics of a storm that it’s really hard to study,” he said.
“Unless you have an aircraft flying into it you don’t necessarily know what’s going on. You don’t have all those observations that you necessarily need to model it,” he said.
Read, a meteorologist and National Weather Service veteran, has headed the National Hurricane Center since January 2008.
His June 2 departure coincides with the start of the 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which runs through Nov. 30. Several forecasters expect the season to be just below average in terms of the overall number of storms.
NOAA will issue its initial forecast for the season at a news conference next Thursday.
On Friday, NOAA announced that Read is to be succeeded by Rick Knabb, a former senior hurricane specialist and science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center.
He returns to the center after serving most recently as the on-air tropical weather expert for the Weather Channel in Atlanta since May 2010.
In the interview, Read cautioned that no one should take much comfort in the fact that 2012 is predicted to be a relatively mild season in the midst of a generally active hurricane period across the Atlantic-Caribbean basin.
The active period began 18 years ago and, judging by historical data, it may last as long as 35 years.
“A quiet season has nothing to do with the potential for impact,” said Read. “A quiet season does not have any correlation with the risk of a major hurricane.” (Reporting By Tom Brown; editing by Todd Eastham)