Accomplished ImpactWeather Meteorologist Looks to the Past for Insight into Today’s Hurricanes

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Most meteorologists quietly go about their jobs in relative anonymity. I’m often reminded of this when I meet someone and the subject of professions comes up. “Oh, what station are you on?” is the usual response when I say I’m a meteorologist. We all get it.

There are literally thousands of operational meteorologists, as well as university and field research meteorologists, along with a wide variety of specialty meteorologists providing detailed and specific forecasts for their clients — all without a TV camera in sight. There are even advanced developers and programmers who are meteorologists developing the behind-the-scenes software and equipment that make the job easier for the rest of us. Sometimes a meteorologist has experience in more than one specialty and is able to harness the experience of one to enhance the other.

Meteorologist Andrew Hagen earlier this year at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Photo: NHC/NOAA

Such a meteorologist is ImpactWeather’s Andrew Hagen. Prior to joining ImpactWeather’s TropicsWatch team earlier this year, Andrew was a research associate at the University of Miami Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies, though his office was not at the campus but at Miami’s National Hurricane Center. As a researcher, Andrew toiled in the anonymity of the Atlantic Reanalysis Project where he reanalyzed hurricanes and synoptic situations from the 1940s and 1950s. Since accurate forecasts of today’s Atlantic storms rely on an accurate understanding of yesteryear’s storms and patterns, the project is critical and touches each one of us within striking distance of an Atlantic or Gulf storm. Andrew’s project leader was Dr. Chris Landsea, now the Science and Operations officer at the NHC and a speaker at ImpactWeather’s annual Hurricane Seminar for Business and Industry in 2011.

While in Miami, Andrew didn’t spend all his time researching the tropical ebb and flow of decades past, as evidenced by the recently published and released paper, “On the Classification of Extreme Atlantic Hurricanes Using Mid-Twentieth Century Monitoring Capabilities,” in the Journal of Climate (see full report in PDF format here). Andrew was still pouring over tropical data but this time however, he examined recent Category 5 hurricanes (from 1992 to 2007) to see if they would be recognized as Category 5 storms from the perspective of the technology available in the mid-twentieth century. In other words, without even today’s basic satellite images, how would a 1940s storm stand up to the scrutiny of today’s analysis? The results were surprising.

Of the 10 Category 5 storms since 1992, only two would have made the grade in the 1940s. Remember, forecasters in the post-WWII period had only ground-based weather observations and the occasional ship report with which to detect and forecast tropical storms. The first time an aircraft intentionally flew into a hurricane was in 1943, but that was the result of a bar bet* in Texas. By the late 1940s, aerial reconnaissance into hurricanes was still considered to be in its infancy. And one of the most useful tools to today’s meteorologist, the weather satellite, was still more than 10 years away.

By re-analyzing storms and patterns of 70 years ago, Hagen (again in partnership with Dr. Landsea) concluded that there is an undercount of the most powerful tropical storms from mid-century and that today’s studies that consider the numbers of storms from that period must be called into question. At the outset, if even the strongest storms of the 1940s were undercounted, how do we know for sure that we are now heading into a period of increased numbers and intensities of Atlantic storms?

ImpactWeather Meteorologists Dante Diaz (l) and Andrew Hagen were both the subject of a USAToday story about the children of 1992's Hurricane Andrew (shown on monitor). As young boys in the Miami area, both were so impacted by the Category 5 storm that their chosen career paths lead them to tropical meteorology. Photo: AP

Researchers and meteorologists such as Andrew don’t choose their careers with the hope of being on TV, but neither do they typically seek out the anonymity that comes with years of reanalyzing data that has already been in the history books for decades. And though critical research such as this will not likely land Hagen on TV, it will improve the science of accurately forecasting Atlantic hurricanes used by every television meteorologist from Brownsville, Texas to Freeport, Maine — as well as the thousands of other meteorologists who regularly get asked, “What station are you on?”

The USAToday article mentioned at left, entitled “Children of Andrew Still Recall 1992 Hurricane,” is here.]

* Of course, official versions of the story will never admit to a bar bet, but local legend holds.


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