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How are Hurricanes Tracked?

Amy Pollick
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

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Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at All Things Nature. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
Discussion Comments
By Georgesplane — On Feb 06, 2011

@ Chicada- Hurricane tracking models would be nowhere near what they were today without the brave women and men who operate the five person crews that fly into the eye of these storms. The flights are composed of both department of defense personnel and civilian personnel who perform a dangerous job for the wellbeing of everyone. They fly a Lockheed-Martin WC-130J Hercules into the eye of these storms in an Alpha pattern until low fuel or the mission is completed. These huge cargo planes have a range of about 2000 nautical miles at max payload, but otherwise are not reinforced. The squadron has ten planes that are capable of flying three different storms per day throughout the Pacific or Atlantic.

When they fly into category three plus storms, they fly a crisscross alpha pattern at a minimum of ten thousand feet. These planes and their crew are vital to preparing the country for massive storms.

By parmnparsley — On Feb 03, 2011

@ Chicada- What you have heard is true. The 53rd weather recon squadron based in Biloxi Mississippi flies into the center of tropical storms and hurricanes whenever they occur. They will fly into a forming storm at a low elevation to determine if the storm is forming an eye wall, what wind speeds are, and what the surface temperature and wave patterns are like. This will indicate track of storm, and potential strengthening of the storm.

They also fly into the center of well-developed hurricanes and tropical storms. They drop sensors into the eye of the storm that help to give accurate predictions of the wind speed, direction, temperature, and other variables within storms. Without these flights into the eye of the storm, Atlantic hurricane tracking would be far less accurate.

By chicada — On Feb 02, 2011

What a great article. Is it true that hurricane storm tracking involves planes that fly into the eye of a hurricane? That seems like it would be a horrible job for anyone who doesn't have a death wish. What do they do in the center of these storms? I hope they get hazard pay.

Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at All Things...
Learn more
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