What makes scientists more certain?

For the past five days, Hurricane Irene affected the weather for residents on the East Coast.  For the Northeastern United States, the forecasts of the storm’s intensity turned out to be wrong; the storm weakened more than meteorologists had expected.

At the same time, the prediction of where the storm would go was very good.  Why was there such a difference between the two forecasts?

“People see that and assume we can predict everything,” National Hurricane Center senior forecaster Richard Pasch said.

“It’s frustrating when people take our forecasts verbatim and say, ‘This is where it’s going to be at this time and this is how strong it’s going to be,'” Pasch said. “Because even though the track is good it’s not certain.”

What will improve the forecasts?  More data.

The computer models that did so well as predicting the path that Irene would take use large-scale data.  “The keys to intensity changes are usually too small for big computer models,” said Georgia Tech meteorology professor Judith Curry.

Retired hurricane center director Max Mayfield says what’s needed is better real-time, small-scale information, like Doppler radar. NOAA used old propeller planes to take Doppler radar data inside Irene, but the information will be used to design better intensity forecasts in the future, he said.

With more data, meteorologists are able to make better models, which will more accurately predict the intensity of future storms.  This is applicable across all fields of science: more data leads to better models, leading to more accurate predictions of the future.

Learn about how scientists use new data to make better models of Earth’s future climate and fresh water availability with High-Adventure Science investigations.