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In this day of radar imaging, computer models and computer plotting, it may seem strange that meteorologists have such trouble forecasting the path for a hurricane. As big and long-lived as hurricanes are, it would seem forecasters could get a better grip on hurricane tracking. However, hurricanes are unpredictable storms, and a forecaster could go crazy trying to anticipate what the storm will do. Meteorologists use data collected from Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association planes, satellite imagery, computer models and radar data to try to forecast a storm’s course and intensity. They also use their past experience in dealing with storms in the same location and of the same type in hurricane tracking.
Many factors have a hand in hurricane tracking. The atmospheric conditions around the storm, and even those thousands of miles away, can affect when, where and at what strength a hurricane will make landfall. Computer models take all this data into consideration when plotting a storm path, and most forecasters base their hurricane tracking on what the computer guidance tells them. The computer models can integrate all the variables of the atmospheric conditions and what effects they are likely to have on the storm, water temperatures and so on, and come up with predictions on what the storm might do.
Hurricane tracking is very accurate for 12 to 24 hours out. It is less accurate as the time period extends. This is because the atmospheric features or conditions predicted by the computers have not yet come to pass, and so beyond a day or two, any predictions about storm paths are just educated guesses.
Hurricanes are rather like pinballs, "bouncing" off high- or low-pressure systems, caught up in steering currents and winds aloft. Although it seems like a strange concept, they are somewhat passive storms, reacting to what is around them, but not really influencing the changes, except by their sheer presence. This is another factor that makes hurricane tracking an inexact science. If a pressure system slows down or speeds up, for instance, it can change the forecast track for the hurricane. Computer models simply can't consider every possible variable.
Even though hurricane tracking isn't perfect, it is better than it used to be. Most areas now have four or five days of advance notice that a hurricane might be headed to their part of the world. As technology advances, hurricane tracking will, no doubt, improve as well. As many people in the United States learned to their sorrow in 2005, hurricane warnings are serious business, and evacuation orders should be obeyed whenever possible.