Meteorologists take a second look at the hurricane record

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Christopher Landsee. (Photo submitted)

This is the first of two stories about the Hurricane Reanalysis Project.

The Virgin Islands are well versed in the “hunkers down” discipline of oncoming and passing storms, and you might be surprised to learn how many hurricanes have officially been listed for the territory over the past 70 years.

Three.

From 1946 to 2019, NOAA’s (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) National Hurricane Center’s official record lists only three VI hurricanes: Hugo in 1989; Lenny in 1999; and Dorian in 2019.

The 2017 catastrophic twin destroyers are only listed for Barbuda, St. Martin, British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas (Irma), and Dominica and Puerto Rico (Maria). Not the USVI, which is still recovering from millions in the damage and utter disruption of its health, education and other social systems.

Hurricane Marilyn, which destroyed or severely damaged an estimated 80 percent of the buildings on St. Thomas in 1995, is listed only in Dominica and is listed as a minor Category 1 hurricane.

The most obvious explanation for what looks like blatant omissions is in terms of terminology.

The listing that appears on the NOAA website, is entitled “International Atlantic Hurricane Landfalls”. The term “international” is geographic, not political, and is used to distinguish between hurricanes that have hit the Caribbean region and those that have reached the mainland of the United States. There is a separate listing for the mainland.

“Landfalls” is the keyword for both. It indicates that the eye of a listed storm has actually swept across the shoreline of a particular area of ​​land.

Given the small size of each of the Virgin Islands, this makes “landfalls” rare, according to expert Christopher Landsea, director of tropical analysis and forecasting at the National Hurricane Center.

“With islands, however, you can have a huge impact without landing,” he said. A storm can “hit” an island without hitting land.

Landsea is also open to the possibility that there might be errors in the database.

In fact, he has been a database correction leader for more than 20 years, leading the effort known as the Hurricane Reanalysis Project.

When the project began in the 1990s, the U.S. government’s official record of tropical cyclones (hurricanes and tropical storms) in the Atlantic began in 1886. Using historical records, project researchers were able to trace the database back to 1851, which also began chronologically proceed to review and reevaluate any information they could find and issue regular reports that are available on the NOAA website.

To date, researchers have adjusted the records of US storms through 1965. There are also a handful of individual hurricane analyzes that are deemed important enough to warrant a separate report.

In a recent interview with the source, Landsea said he hoped to finalize and publish the 1966-1970 analysis in a few months.

This report will contain information about a hurricane that lasted two days north of the Azores. “It wasn’t even in there (in the database) – not even as a storm,” he says. It is always exciting to discover a previously unknown hurricane. In the 1960s, he said, there were an average of two to four storms a year that didn’t make the old record.

The project isn’t just about adding storms to the plate; it is also about changes in the course of a storm, its intensity, its duration and its lifespan.

For example, the report covering the period 1851 to 1910 states that there were “several thousand changes and additions” as a result of the reanalysis project during this period, and that there could be more in the future “as new information becomes available. ”

“Our understanding (of tropical cyclones) has evolved,” Landsea said. The technology available for finding, tracking and assessing storms has changed dramatically over time. Well, “If there’s a storm out there, we know about it.”

Landsea said he got involved in the reanalysis project “somehow by accident”. He studied climate change at Colorado State University, where he received his Masters and PhD in atmospheric science in the 1990s. He was using the hurricane database and it was evident that it was missing.

He credited the late Charles Newmann, a meteorologist who specializes in tropical cyclone forecasting and research, with spearheading the reworking of the record.

Most of the work was done with very small staff. The team size fluctuates. It currently consists of two forecasters and himself, Landsea said. And they can not devote all the time to the project, so the work goes slowly.

“Our main job is to predict,” he said. Tracking storms in real time and issuing warnings takes precedence over historical data dives.

Next up: some of the hurricane reanalysis results.

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