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By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters)

Despite advances in predicting where hurricanes are heading, forecasters are still struggling to determine a crucial factor in deciding emergency measures and evacuations: their intensity

With a better way to predict a storm’s power, or intensity, people on the ground will be more prepared in knowing whether a hurricane headed their way will cause devastating floods and winds that can uproot trees like Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last year, or just shake branches and rattle windows.

 

 Residents wade through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont Place, Houston
Residents wade through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont Place, Houston, Texas, U.S., August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

 

“The fact that we have a much better understanding of where these storms are going to go is a great first step. We sort of have half the circle filled in, and we need to get that other half filled in, which is that intensity component,” said Steve Bowen, director and meteorologist for insurer Aon Benfield’s Impact Forecasting team.

Due to warming sea and air temperatures, there is also more energy in storms, which might affect intensity predictions, some climate scientists have said.

 

A truck drives through storm surge flooding of a road during Hurricane Sandy in Southampton, New York
A truck drives through storm surge flooding of a road during Hurricane Sandy in Southampton, New York, U.S., October 29, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

 

Climate change potentially affects the frequency, intensity and tracks of tropical cyclones,” MIT climate professor Kerry Emanuel wrote in a recent academic paper.

Measuring a hurricane’s intensity quickly and formulating predictions on its changes is key to giving people on the ground time to prepare as the Atlantic hurricane season peaks this year after a devastating 2017 season.

 

 

Maria, one in a series of devastating hurricanes last year, killed an estimated 4,465 people, knocked out the electric grid and caused $90 billion (68.02 billion pounds) in damage in Puerto Rico.

The National Hurricane Center said in a report last year that it failed to adequately predict the rapid intensification of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 to a Category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph (270 kph).

 

Samuel Vasquez rebuilds his house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, while his wife Ysamar Figueroa looks on, whilst carrying their son Saniel, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico
Samuel Vasquez rebuilds his house, which was partially destroyed by Hurricane Maria, while his wife Ysamar Figueroa looks on, whilst carrying their son Saniel, at the squatter community of Villa Hugo in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

 

The storm carved a destructive path in the Caribbean, killing more than 1,000 people in Haiti, according to data gathered by Reuters.

 

HEART OF THE HURRICANE

There are more than a dozen scientific models for predicting hurricane intensity but they are of limited use, scientists say.

While the science of tracking a storm relies heavily on data about conditions on its periphery, predicting intensity relies on finding where its energy is coming from by measuring what is happening in the middle of it.

 

Water rises up to a sidewalk by the Miami river as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, in downtown Miami
Water rises up to a sidewalk by the Miami river as Hurricane Irma arrives at south Florida, in downtown Miami, Florida, U.S., September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

 

Typically, that means flying a hurricane hunter aircraft inside the storm, measuring wind speeds from a weather buoy as a storm passes overhead or relying on satellites that may fly over once every other day.

One project to obtain more data to predict intensity is the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System or CYGNSS for short, a constellation of eight low-orbit satellites launched by NASA in 2016.

 

Burnt houses are seen next to those which survived in Breezy Point of Queens, after it was devastated by Hurricane Sandy
Burnt houses are seen next to those which survived in Breezy Point, a neighborhood located in the New York City borough of Queens, after it was devastated by Hurricane Sandy October 31, 2012. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

 

Previous satellites, which flew over relatively infrequently, had trouble measuring ocean surface winds at the centre of storms, with their signals often being degraded by heavy rain at the core, NASA said.

“For storms that are changing really quickly, you could miss something like rapid intensification,” said Christopher Ruf, principal investigator for CYGNSS and a climate science professor at the University of Michigan.

 

A woman looks as her husband climbs down a ladder at a partially destroyed bridge, after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Utuado
A woman looks as her husband climbs down a ladder at a partially destroyed bridge, after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Utuado, Puerto Rico November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

 

CYGNSS was designed to measure surface winds in and near the inner core of tropical systems, including regions that could not previously be measured from space. With more satellites passing over more often, and being in a position closer to the storms, it offers more real-time data to be plugged into intensity models, researchers said.

At present, researchers are focussing on the 2017 season when hurricanes devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. They are replaying data gathered from CYGNSS to see how it affected the quality of the forecasts and how it can be better used to predict intensity.

 

Director of National Hurricane Center Knabb, meterologists Franklin and Brown track Tropical Storm Karen movements, at the NHC office in Miami
Director of National Hurricane Center (NHC) Rick Knabb (L), meterologists James Franklin and Daniel Brown (seated) track Tropical Storm Karen movements, at the NHC office in Miami, Florida October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Gaston De Cardenas

 

CYGNSS could be fully operational next year, researchers said.

Michael Brennan, branch chief of the hurricane specialist unit at the National Hurricane Center, said the 2017 hurricane season saw a great deal of rapid intensification when storms quickly picked up, or lost, power.

 

USAF "Hurricane Hunter" plane flies through the eye of Hurricane Irma off Florida coast
As nightfall approaches, a WC-130J Super Hercules from the Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron known as the “Hurricane Hunters” flies through the eye of Hurricane Irma as it approaches the coast of Florida, U.S., September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 

The centre launched a 10-year Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program in 2009 that has helped it better understand where storms are going and the power they will possess by coordinating hurricane research to improve the task.

Last year, in the Atlantic basin, forecasters correctly forecasted six of 39 instances of rapid intensification, Brennan said.

“It doesn’t sound like a really great number, but 10 years ago that number would have been zero,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz, Editing by Ben Klayman and James Dalgleish)

 

Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey is pictured off the coast of Texas, U.S. from aboard the International Space Station in this August 25, 2017 NASA handout photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

 

Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria
Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria are seen in Lares, Puerto Rico, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

 

Cars drive under a partially collapsed utility pole, after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in September
Cars drive under a partially collapsed utility pole, after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in September, in Naguabo, Puerto Rico October 20, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

 

A view shows boats piled next to a house, where they were washed ashore during Hurricane Sandy
A view shows boats piled next to a house, where they were washed ashore during Hurricane Sandy, near Monmouth Beach, New Jersey October 31, 2012. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

 

 Hurricane Harvey is pictured off the coast of Texas, U.S. from aboard the International Space Station in this NASA handout photo
Hurricane Harvey is pictured off the coast of Texas, U.S. from aboard the International Space Station in this August 25, 2017 NASA handout photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

 

USAF "Hurricane Hunter" plane flies through the eye of Hurricane Irma
A WC-130J Super Hercules from the Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron known as the “Hurricane Hunters” approaches Hurricane Irma as the storm makes its way toward the coast of Florida, U.S., September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

 

USAF "Hurricane Hunters" Irma flight briefing in Biloxi
The crew of a WC-130J Super Hercules from the U.S. Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron know as “Hurricane Hunters” hold a briefing at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi before taking off to fly into the eye of Hurricane Irma, off the coast of southern Florida, U.S., September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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