Kickoff to Hurricane Season 2020: A discussion with the leading hurricane season forecaster

What we’re talking about

The Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University has been releasing a seasonal hurricane forecast every year since 1984 under Dr. William Gray. Dr. Phil Klotzbach currently leads the research program and is well known among the emergency management community for his annual forecasts. Dr. Klotzbach will share details of his first released forecast of the season and indications on how the forecast might be changing on the eve of an updated forecast, which will be released by Colorado State on June 4, 2020.

Although the official start to hurricane season was on June 1, storms had already formed by the end of May, with Tropical Storm Cristobal forming on June 2 – the earliest third named storm on record in the Tropical Atlantic Basin. Dr. Phil Klotzbach will share how atmospheric factors influence the annual seasonal forecast and will provide clues on whether the April forecast numbers will change due to the early activity. Dr. Klotzbach will also reinforce why the emergency management community will need to take COVID-19 into consideration as they prepare for the season.

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This is Disaster Recovery Roundtable, and our special coverage of hurricane season 2020. It’s just the first week of the season, but we’ve already seen three named storms form. All signs are indicating an active year. 

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In this episode, we’ll hear from the leading researcher in hurricane forecasting. This is Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate the emergency management community. Our topics are timely and relevant, intended to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices. 

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Here’s your host, Greg Paget. We’re so excited today to have our guest in this episode, Dr. Phil Glossbach, from the Tropical Meteorology Project with Colorado State University. Phil, welcome to the Roundtable. 

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Thanks so much for having me, Greg. Now, I know who you are, and anybody who follows hurricanes knows who you are and who Colorado State is, and Dr. Bill Gray. But in case somebody’s been in Jupiter for the last few years, 10 years, and doesn’t know why Colorado State is so well-known, world-renowned for tropical research, can you explain how this whole process started there with the program? Yeah, so we’ve been doing seasonal hurricane forecasts out of Colorado State University. 

(1:21 – 1:44) 

This is our 37th year, so it started all the way back in 1984. Like you mentioned with Dr. Bill Gray, he was a professor and he had actually already been studying hurricanes for about 30 years when he started doing these seasonal hurricane forecasts. And the reason he started doing these forecasts was that he noted that you tend to have certain sets of climate conditions that appear before active seasons and a different set before inactive seasons. 

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Because the idea prior to 1984 was there was no way to know how active the upcoming hurricane season was likely to be. And he, using historical weather and climate data, discovered that that wasn’t the case, that you could actually discriminate between active and inactive seasons, even prior to the start of the hurricane season. And so since Bill Gray was working at Colorado State University at the time, that’s why seasonal hurricane forecasts got their start in Colorado. 

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And if people used to ask Dr. Gray, you know, why issue forecasts in Fort Collins, Colorado, he would say it’s because the storm surge can’t get you at 5,000 feet. Right. Dr. Bill Gray always had that sense of humor. 

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I met him for the first time back in 1996 when I was covering a hurricane conference with a TV station in Norfolk, Virginia. And it was just amazing. It was like a rock star had walked into the room when he was around. 

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Everybody flocked to him. Of course, I think now you know how that feels because I’ve been to several hurricane conferences. I’m on the planning committee. 

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And your workshop’s the hottest ticket in town. And I think that’s why we now have two and three versions of your workshop every year. It’s standing room only. 

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People want to get these forecasts. They want to hear what you have to say. They want to hear the latest on that research. 

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Let’s talk about where we are for 2020. I know back a few months ago in April, you released your first forecast. What is it looking like right now for 2020? Yeah. 

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So we forecast in early April, we forecast an above normal season with a total of 16 storms. Of those 16, 8 becoming hurricanes. And of those 8, 4 becoming major category 3, 4, 5 hurricanes. 

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Those are hurricanes with winds of 111 miles per hour or greater. But, yeah, so right now we’re forecasting an above normal season. And we’re actually going to be putting out an update to our forecast tomorrow on June 4th. 

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Will the forecast automatically go up? There’s the potential for that. It just depends how we overall forecast the rest of the season. Obviously, if we decide to keep the forecast the same, the number of storms might go up. 

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I do want to point out that getting storms in May, isn’t that uncommon? It’s actually the sixth year in a row that we’ve had a named storm form in May. But if you look at overall hurricane activity in May, that’s pretty unusual. If you use the entire satellite era, so we’ve been monitoring storms via satellite, that goes back to 1966. 

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So we’ve been doing that for over 50 years. We’ve only had one storm actually reach hurricane strength during May, and that was Alma all the way back in 1970. So there’s been some discussion about potentially extending the hurricane season. 

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But if hurricane season is supposed to mean when you actually get hurricanes, I think starting June 1st is still plenty valid. We’ve already seen also some activity in other parts of the world. The Bay of Bengal had a very significant-sized storm there in May as well. 

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Are we seeing an uptick based on your research with climate change? Yeah, so there’s a couple of different techniques you can do. You can look at the observational record and see, you know, have storms gotten stronger or are we seeing more of them? And the challenge with that is that the Atlantic Basin, the data is probably pretty good going back to about 1950. But if you start looking at other basins like the North Indian Ocean, like you just mentioned, it gets really tricky with the observational data just because as you go back in time, the satellite imagery isn’t as good, and then it’s nonexistent. 

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We weren’t flying aircraft into storms in other basins. So it gets hard to really look at it observationally and find really significant trends going back more than about 30 years. So I would say over the last 30 years, there are some hints that storms are getting stronger. 

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Now, when it comes to the kind of the long-term modeling results, some of the models are generally indicating that we wouldn’t necessarily expect to see more storms, but that we may see storms becoming a little bit stronger. So basically, not necessarily seeing more overall hurricanes, but just the number of hurricanes reaching these higher intensities may go up a bit. I think with climate change, the things that we know better, even in, say, our storms getting stronger, is we know regardless of climate change, there’s generally more people living along the coast, so that increases the potential property to be damaged. 

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We also know that sea level is rising, so we’re likely to get more inundation, even if the storm is the same strength, a stronger or higher. If the background sea level is higher, that means that you’re going to get more. The water is going to go further inland just because the sea level is higher, even if the storm is the same strength. 

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And also, too, in general, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so we would expect to see some more rain coming from these storms as well. So much is placed onto these forecasts. For many years, for me, myself, being in TV and meteorology and helping to educate the public, we always tell them it’s not the number of storms you get in the season, it’s where those storms that form, where they end up going, where they end up impacting. 

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And a lot can be said to look back at 1992, a very inactive year in comparison to what we normally see on an average year with seven named storms, yet the first one was Hurricane Andrew. And if you live in South Florida, it’s hard to tell those people it was an inactive year. How do you get that message across every time you put out these forecasts? Yeah, so we always say with these hurricane forecasts that it’s an informational tool, not a preparedness tool. 

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People are curious, they want to know how active the season is going to be, and we have some skill to be able to do that, but we can’t say when or where the storms are going to strike. You gave a good example in 1992 with Hurricane Andrew, probably even a more exaggerated example was 1983. We only had four storms all year, so we only got to D. But the first storm of that year was Hurricane Alicia, which did a lot of damage in southeast Texas. 

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So you have to realize that these storms do overall, these seasonal forecasts do overall have skill, but you can certainly still be significantly impacted by a hurricane, even in an overall below average season. So we always emphasize that regardless of the seasonal forecast, we need to be prepared the same every season. But that’s not to say that in general, if you say look at five or ten active hurricane seasons and five or ten inactive seasons, you will see more landfalls in the more active seasons overall, just because when you have more storms out in the Atlantic Basin, the odds of them coming ashore don’t necessarily change, but if you have more of them, the overall odds just increase because there’s more storms out in the basin. 

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Earlier this week when we kicked off our 2020 coverage of hurricane season, we spoke with Ken Graham from the National Hurricane Center. They’re doing so much research on trying to really get their handle on intensity forecasts. We saw in 2018 Cat 5 Michael impacting the northern Gulf Coast and 2019 Cat 5 Dorian impacting the Bahamas. 

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How are you doing as far as researching these intensity numbers and these intensities tracking for these hurricanes? Yeah, I mean, obviously that’s a huge area of research. I mean, there’s kind of two areas with hurricanes. You’re obviously trying to forecast the track of the storm because obviously where the storm tracks is hugely important and the hurricane forecast tracks have gotten much, much better. 

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And intensity forecasts are improving as well, but the intensity forecast is a much more challenging piece because it involves basically external factors to the storm, so things like wind shear. If you have too much of that, it tends to tear apart the storm. The amount of moisture, how warm the waters are, but then also internal characteristics of the storm, basically how the storm is currently structured, can make a huge difference as to how strong it gets, and there’s certainly a lot of research being done on that front. 

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The research that I focus on is more on a slightly bit longer timescale. We do mostly forecasts, say, from a two-week timescale all the way up to a seasonal timescale in terms of prediction. For those emergency managers out there listening who didn’t have a chance to hear you in your normal platform areas there, whether it’s the Hurricane Conference or the Florida Governor’s Conference, what message do you have for them for last year and going into this year? Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, I mean, obviously the emergency management community certainly understands, you know, now’s the time to be prepared and to, you know, and to be discussing what we’re going to do for the upcoming season. 

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I mean, obviously, you know, with 2020, we have extra considerations with COVID and all these other factors in terms of how people are going to evacuate and, you know, trying to mitigate exactly what’s going to happen when these storms, if and when these storms do come ashore. But one thing I do like to remind people is that while hurricane season starts June 1st, you know, 96% of all our major hurricanes that have made U.S. landfall in the past have occurred between August through October. So, you know, June 1st comes around. 

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It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to start seeing hurricanes right away. Often June and July are very, very quiet. So we still have some additional time to, you know, to prepare and to kind of get plans together and try to make sure kind of the best way forward for, you know, mitigation and preparation with regards to, especially with the COVID pandemic aspect of things. 

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As we wrap up here, if you could, and maybe you’ve done this sometimes, thought about if Bill Gray was alive with us today, what would he find really fascinating with the research you’ve done most recently? Yeah, I mean, yeah, I think about Bill Gray a lot. He passed away over four years ago now, but certainly he was my mentor. I worked with him closely for 15 years and hopefully be happy with the research that I’m currently doing. 

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We’ve actually been doing a lot of work trying to improve the seasonal forecast, which obviously was near and dear to his heart. One of the things that we’re doing now is we’re using climate models to forecast large scale fields. So basically using a climate model like the European Center model or the Met Office model to forecast basically things like wind shear or water temperatures and then using those forecast fields and overall the anticoagulant activity. 

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And that was something that just simply wasn’t possible when Bill Gray started doing these forecasts because climate models in the 1980s were in their infancy and certainly didn’t have any real skill to them. So hopefully he would approve of that research. We’re also doing some work talking about changing, basically, instead of categorizing hurricanes by wind like we currently do, potentially categorizing them by pressure because pressure actually correlates better both with the damage the storms cause as well as the fatalities. 

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So basically using pressure, if we’re going to use one simple metric to categorize hurricanes, using pressure as opposed to wind. Very interesting. Well, we appreciate all the great work you guys do there with the Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State and continuing the legacy and the work that Dr. Bill Gray started there so many decades ago. 

(12:20 – 12:33) 

If you’ve not been in Jupiter and you don’t know about the program here at Colorado State University, go out and visit their website. There’s a lot of information there that you guys share with us. And, of course, then tomorrow, as you mentioned, we’ll have that new update for the 2020 hurricane season. 

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So we’re looking forward to that as well. Thanks so much, Phil, for being on the show today. Thanks so much for having me. 

Take care. Coming up tomorrow, our five podcasts in five days, as some special coverage of hurricane season 2020 continues as we head down to Puerto Rico with the latest on mitigation efforts there after the island was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Also, don’t forget, send us your ideas for future podcasts. 

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