March 23, 2005

National Weather Service to Keep Hurricane ‘Line’

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The National Weather Service will stick with the familiar "skinny black line" on maps projecting the paths of hurricanes, despite concerns that the practice fails to convey the uncertainty in forecasting and can give the public a false sense of security.

Scott Kiser, the tropical cyclone program manager with the weather service, made the announcement Wednesday before the opening of the annual National Hurricane Conference.

The agency had looked at three options: keeping the skinny line, using a series of large colored dots to represent the projected path, or using large circles that would encompass the projected path and the margin for error.

Kiser said the decision to stick with the line was made after the weather service sought opinions from the public, the news media and emergency service workers, receiving 971 e-mailed responses.

He said 63 percent favored keeping the skinny line. He summed up the response as: "Show us your best forecast - we're smart enough to figure it out."

The four hurricanes that stuck Florida last year proved storms can veer off the narrow tracking lines featured in TV, newspaper and computer graphics. Hurricanes can also cut a much wider swath of destruction than the lines indicate.

Hurricane Charley, for example, slammed into Punta Gorda in August even though its tracking line pointed toward the Tampa Bay area about 90 miles north. Charley suddenly intensified and took a right turn, but by then it was too late to get out.

The busy 2004 hurricane season had 15 named storms, including nine hurricanes. They cost 117 lives in Florida and more than 3,000 in Haiti, and damaged or destroyed one in five Florida homes

Some emergency and weather officials have expressed concern that some people may have failed to evacuate or take other precautions because they were too focused on the tracking lines instead of the broader areas of possible landfall on either side, often shaded white in the graphics.

"Part of the perception problem is that the skinny line wasn't over their area, but yet these people were in our error cone," said Stacy Stewart, a forecaster with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Encouraging people to pay less attention to the skinny line is one of themes of the conference.


On the Net:

National Hurricane Conference: http://www.hurricanemeeting.com/