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Meteorologist: Tracking storms a ‘fluid situation’

September 23, 2018

FLORENCE, S.C. — A Florence meteorologist has some insights on tracking hurricanes.

David Baxley, a Francis Marion University assistant professor of mass communication who has 17 years of experience in news and meteorology, said multiple external factors affect a hurricane’s path.

“There are so many weather systems across the world that it’s just not a precise science,” Baxley said. “It’s a very fluid situation. When a storm forms out in the Atlantic for us, forecasters have to look at many things.”

Other weather patterns, such as high- and low-pressure systems, water temperature and cold fronts, all affect where and how harshly hurricanes could hit the coast, because the storm gets pushed around with the other weather systems.

“The hurricane is going to find the path of least resistance,” Baxley said.

For example, in the case of a hurricane coming toward the Carolinas, a cold front coming south from the Ohio Valley could steer the hurricane out to sea, Baxley said.

Tracking hurricanes is more than just looking at a region’s weather patterns; it’s a fluid system.

“It’s Mother Nature trying to balance out temperatures across the globe,” Baxley said. “The whole point we have hurricanes is to move latent heat toward the poles, because it is colder around the Arctic. It’s something Mother Nature does.”

Because weather is constantly changing and hurricanes are hard to predict, meteorologists at the National Weather Service are limited to what they extrapolate from models and weather reports, Baxley said.

“These people are the best in the business, but they’re only as good as their weather models,” Baxley said. “They can’t go off of gut feeling. They’ve got to go off of what their weather models are showing.”

According to Steve Pfaff, who is the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Wilmington, North Carolina, hurricane models are limited, because when the storms are farther out in the Atlantic, the only way to get information on the storm is through satellites. When the storm gets closer, a hurricane hunter can fly out to collect firsthand data from the storm.

Pfaff said hurricane forecasts and the center are getting better, but the models cannot predict with certainty where the storm will go beyond five days.

“The farther out in time, the greater the uncertainty,” Pfaff said.

When tracking storms and making forecasts, forecasters look for congruency between what the hurricane models say. Pfaff said one model shouldn’t be taken over another, because each storm and model is different; one model could function better for one storm and another function better for another storm.

Though a model might show a hurricane going to make landfall somewhere else, it’s still important to pay attention to the greater impact the storm might have in other areas, Baxley said. Though a storm isn’t directly hitting the area, it is still possible for the storm to cause flooding.

“I think there’s a personal responsibility of knowing where you are and what has happened previously in your location,” Baxley said.

Baxley said individuals must keep current, reliable information when preparing for an approaching storm.

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