The forces that affect tropical cyclone steering are the higher latitude westerlies, the subtropical ridge, and the beta effect caused by changes of the coriolis force within fluids such as the atmosphere. Accurate track predictions depend on determining the position and strength of high and low pressure areas, and predicting how those areas will migrate during the life of a tropical system. Computer forecast models are used to help determine this motion as far out as five to seven days in the future.
With the launch of the first weather satellite, TIROS-I, in 1960, introduced new forecasting techniques that remain important to tropical cyclone forecasting to the present. In the 1970’s, buoys were introduced to improve the resolution of surface measurements, which until that point, were not available at all over sea surfaces.
About four days in advance of a typical tropical cyclone, an ocean swell of in height will roll in about every 10 seconds, moving towards the coast from the direction of the tropical cyclone's location. The ocean swell will slowly increase in height and frequency the closer a tropical cyclone gets to land. Two days in advance of the center's passage, winds go calm as the tropical cyclone interrupts the environmental wind flow. Within 36 hours of the center passage, the pressure begins to fall and a veil of white cirrus clouds approaches from the cyclone's direction. Within 24 hours of the closest approach to the center, low clouds begin to move in as the barometric pressure begins to fall more rapidly and the winds begin to increase. Within 18 hours of the center's approach, squally weather is common, with sudden increases in wind accompanied by rain showers or thunderstorms. Winds increase within 12 hours of the center's approach, occasionally reaching hurricane force. The ocean's surface becomes whipped with foam. Small items begin flying in the wind. Within 6 hours of the center's arrival, rain becomes continuous and the storm surge begins to come inland. Within an hour of the center, the rain becomes very heavy and the highest winds within the tropical cyclone are experienced. When the center arrives with a strong tropical cyclone, weather conditions improve and the sun becomes visible as the eye moves overhead. At this point, the pressure ceases to drop as the lowest pressure within the storm's center is reached. This is also when the peak depth of the storm surge occurs. Once the system departs, winds reverse and, along with the rain, suddenly increase. The storm surge retreats as the pressure suddenly rises in the wake of its center. One day after the center's passage, the low overcast is replaced with a higher overcast, and the rain becomes intermittent. By 36 hours after the center's passage, the high overcast breaks and the pressure begins to level off.
High-speed computers and sophisticated simulation software allow meteorologists to run computer models that forecast tropical cyclone tracks based on the future position and strength of high- and low-pressure systems. Combining forecast models with increased understanding of the forces that act on tropical cyclones, and a wealth of data from Earth-orbiting satellites and other sensors, scientists have increased the accuracy of track forecasts over recent decades. The addition of dropwindsonde missions around tropical cyclones in what are known as synoptic flow missions in the Atlantic Basin decreased track error by 15-20 percent. Using a consensus of forecast models, as well as ensemble members of the various models, can help reduce forecast error. However, regardless how small the average error becomes, large errors within the guidance are still possible. An accurate track forecast is important, because if the track forecast is incorrect, forecasts for intensity, rainfall, storm surge, and tornado threat will also be incorrect.
For decades, tropical cyclone tracks were routinely issued out to 72 hours in the future. Starting in the mid to late 1990s, research into tropical cyclones and how forecast models handle the systems led to substantial improvements in track error. By 2001, the error had reduced sufficiently to extend track out to 5 days in the future on public advisories. In addition, at 1600 UTC during the hurricane season, a medium range coordination call takes place between the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center and the National Hurricane Center to coordinate tropical cyclone placement on the medium range pressure forecasts 6 and 7 days into the future for the northeast Pacific and Atlantic basins. Every so often, even at this time range, successful predictions can be made.