Are seasonal hurricane forecasts of value?

Be prepared regardless of what numbers are in seasonal forecasts

MIAMI – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its seasonal hurricane forecast Thursday calling for eight to 13 named storms, of which three to six could become hurricanes, including one to two major hurricanes.

The headline in the NOAA press release was "NOAA predicts near-normal or below-normal 2014 Atlantic hurricane season."

More: NOAA predicts near-normal 2014 hurricane season

Earlier in April, Colorado State University seasonal forecasters Phil Klotzbach and Bill Gray called for below average activity with nine named storms, three hurricanes and one major hurricane. The average number of named storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes are 12, six and three based on averages from 1981 to 2010.

The above-normal activity experienced in many years since 1995 is expected to be decreased due to the anticipated development of El Niño this summer.

So what is the value of these seasonal forecasts and how are we supposed to use them? As a scientist, I'm glad to see others work on long-range hurricane forecasting. It would be great if someday we had reliable outlooks telling us what areas would likely be impacted by tropical cyclones months in advance.

The first step in doing that is to predict how active in a general sense the season will be. This is what the seasonal outlooks are trying to tell us now.

While there is some skill in forecasting the number of storms on a seasonal basis for the entire Atlantic Basin, these numbers along don't say anything about where or when or even if the tropical cyclones will strike land. What most people really want to know is if there will be a hurricane over their community and no one can tell you that with any certainty.

Perhaps when forecasts call for an exceptionally active year, people are a little more motivated to prepare. But with a forecast like this year indicating the number of storms is most likely to be below normal, I fear that many people will let their guard down.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 taught South Florida that it is not all about the numbers. It just takes that one hurricane over our community to make for a bad year. These seasonal outlooks should have absolutely nothing to do with our preparedness plans. We should be prepared no matter what the numbers are in the seasonal forecast.

In my opinion, many people only hear the numbers and tune out the important preparedness messages that usually follow. NOAA and Klotzbach/Gray certainly understand and acknowledge that it only takes one storm over your community to make for a disastrous year.

By the way, do you remember last year's forecasts by NOAA and Klotzbach/Gray? Most seasonal forecasters including them were calling for a very active Atlantic hurricane season. In fact, the August 2013 update from NOAA continued to call for "an above-normal season, with the possibility that the season could be very active."

Although last season had 14 named storms (many were short-lived), the season in general was very inactive with only two hurricanes and no major hurricanes.

Be smart -- always be prepared regardless of what numbers are in the seasonal forecasts.