NOAA Hurricane Forecast Maps Are Often Misinterpreted — Here’s How to Read Them

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Being prepared to weather a hurricane — whether that involves fortifying your home or creating an emergency evacuation plan — is an important part of making it through the storm. But knowing when these cyclones are forming and where they’re heading is essential for making those plans and understanding when to implement them, too. That’s where hurricane forecast models serve an important purpose.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) releases consistently updated hurricane forecast maps as new storms arise, which improves the process of forecasting the weather and predicting events like hurricane landfalls. However, the cone model that’s often featured in these maps can be confusing to read, as can the various other forecast models in use today. To stay safe all year long, it’s helpful to become more familiar with these maps by learning how to read them correctly and dissolving misconceptions surrounding hurricane forecasts.

What Is NOAA, and What Are Its Hurricane Forecasts?

Hurricanes travel across the ocean via massive, circular gusts of air. These gusts’ speeds clock in at about 75 miles an hour on the low end and top out at 150 miles an hour or more. Warm water is the most common culprit behind hurricanes, and many hurricanes form during the summer. As these storms get closer to making landfall, NOAA begins to closely track their movements, wind speeds and surrounding temperatures. These data help scientists and climatologists determine where the hurricane will travel and what category it will be when it reaches land. The predictions generated based on this information tend to be expressed in model form.

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NOAA is a government-funded scientific agency tasked with identifying and tracking weather events and conditions, particularly those associated with the open ocean. So, it’s also the entity that’s responsible for developing, publishing and releasing hurricane tracking maps through its National Hurricane Center. NOAA is also responsible for conserving coastal environments and managing oceanic resources. Most members of the general public are likely far more familiar with NOAA’s hurricane prediction maps than most of the organization’s other media and activities. Some of these maps utilize a spaghetti-plot style that displays multiple lines showing the potential path of a storm.

A hurricane model is different, however. It displays a representation of an existing storm’s potential path as a wide swath of areas where the hurricane might create weather effects. These models don’t just show the paths like spaghetti plots do; they also show how widespread the impacts of the hurricane may be and the physical area the hurricane may cover. They’re often funnel-shaped, which is why they’re also called forecast cones.

Keep in mind that a forecast model is not a guarantee of a hurricane’s path or strength. However, a model can offer individuals the opportunity to flee from a hurricane’s path or prepare their home for stormy weather. By learning how to read these various models, you can take full advantage of the available data and keep yourself (and your home) safe during hurricane season.

Interpreting Hurricane Models Correctly

Interpreting a hurricane model correctly starts with choosing a reputable source. NOAA is one of the best sources for storm predictions. However, the data it publishes aren’t always easy to read. Fortunately, some of the newer forecast models, including the forecast cone, help to make things a little simpler.

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To read a forecast cone map, you’ll first need to locate the bottom of the cone. This area is where the hurricane is currently located. Next, look at the cone shape emerging from that bottom point — you can spot the widening cone extending upward. This cone is typically separated into solid and transparent sections. The solid area represents the storm’s upcoming path, while the transparent section shows where the storm may potentially end up. The transparent sections are often on the outer left and right sides of the cone.

The size of the cone represents the variability in potential pathways. It does not show the storm’s current or predicted size. To discover what category the hurricane is, you’ll need to look for a small black dot that tracks and points along the cone’s center. This black dot represents the predicted center of the storm and shows a number that represents the storm’s category. A Category 5 hurricane is currently considered the most powerful with the highest potential for destruction.

Stay Prepared During Hurricane Season

Now that you know how to interpret hurricane forecast maps, the next step is to take necessary precautions to keep yourself and your household safe during hurricane season if you live in an area that sees these storms. Remember, these seasons differ depending on the ocean where you’re located. The Atlantic hurricane season begins in June and typically ends in November. However, the East Pacific hurricane season often begins in May. Either way, nearly every hurricane season ends in November — but the season doesn’t dictate whether or not a hurricane will form. It’s simply the time of year when these storms are most common.

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Since the 1880s, there have been dozens of off-season storms, cyclones and hurricanes. Rather than assuming that a December or April hurricane won’t happen, it’s better to familiarize yourself with forecasting trends and hurricane preparation guides so you can always stay a step ahead of the storm and avoid pre-storm panic-buying.

If you haven’t already done so, store up non-perishable goods, including bottled water and easy-to-open snacks. A backup generator can be helpful during an extended power outage, though it’s crucial to follow safety guidelines when installing one in your home.

Additionally, create a plan for what you’ll want to do if your local government orders an evacuation. They’ll likely determine the best route for you to follow, but you’ll need to think about the logistics of rounding up kids and pets, ensuring you have enough medications and food on hand for the days you won’t be able to be at home and learning how to shut down your home properly to limit damage. This can eliminate some panic and uncertainty during an emergency. While it’s vital to protect your home from strong winds and flooding, it’s far more important to keep yourself and your family members safe from harm.