Colorado State researchers keep eye on tropical weather

Tropical Meteorology Project forecasters Phil Klotzbach, left, and Michael Bell

Located just north of Denver, Colorado, the community of Fort Collins shares little with the climate or geography of the Caribbean.

This semi-arid college town sits sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Great Plains to the east. Snow falls here well into late spring and with summer comes drier, sunnier days.

At the Colorado State University campus, however, researchers in Fort Collins have their focus on the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season, officially starting 1 June.

Colorado may seem an odd location for a hurricane research centre like the CSU Tropical Meteorology Project. Many scientists considered ‘founding fathers’ of tropical meteorology, however, have called this campus home, explained graduate research assistant Jhordanne J. Jones.

“The Colorado State Department of Atmospheric Science is one of the earlier hubs of atmospheric science research,” Jones said.

One of the seminal members of the department, William Gray, drove much of the early research on global climatology and tropical cyclone formation. Now, Jones, a native of Jamaica, works alongside research scientists Phil Klotzbach and Michael Bell to generate some of the Atlantic region’s most used and respected hurricane forecasting.

Ahead of the 2019 season, Jones shared some of the project’s observations and predictions for the year.

El Niño effect

The Tropical Meteorology Project released its first forecast for the season on 4 April, anticipating a slightly below average season.

While the forecast includes a slight uptick in named storms – 13 compared to the 1981-2010 average of 12.1 – it also predicts fewer storm days and fewer hurricanes.

The forecast anticipates five hurricanes (below the average of 6.4) and two major hurricanes (below the average of 2.7). Overall storm days on the forecast drop from the average of 59.4 to 50 and major hurricane days drop from 6.2 to four.

The probability of a major hurricane tracking into the Caribbean this season is also below average, dropping to 39% compared to the average for the last century of 42%.

With the start of the season just over a week away, Jones said the outlook remains much the same.

“We are maintaining there will ne a weak or slightly increased El Niño event,” she said.

“In stronger El Niño events where there is a warmed Pacific Ocean, we tend to have fewer hurricanes in the North Atlantic.”

Jones explained that while El Niño means warmer temperatures for the Pacific, it also brings eastwardly winds to the Atlantic that are unfavourable for hurricane formation.

“Caribbean winds are a very good predictor of hurricanes in general for the North Atlantic,” she said. “If Caribbean winds are especially strong and especially eastward … it suggests there will be less hurricane activity.”

The pre-season formation of Subtropical Storm Andrea earlier this week reinforced rather than challenged the CSU forecast, Jones said.

Strong eastern winds impeded the storm and tore it apart, keeping with researchers’ predictions for the season.

Andrea marked the fifth consecutive year that a named storm formed before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. In 2018, Subtropical Storm Alberto formed around 25 May.

Caribbean hurricane research

Jones notes that while researchers are able to form sophisticated forecast models, predicting hurricanes remains tricky.

“There is an overall uncertainty no matter where we are in the world …. Prediction overall is incredibly difficult,” she said.

In the Caribbean, the crystal ball becomes even cloudier. While the region benefits from work conducted in the United States, it lacks consistent data, making it difficult to form forecasting models, Jones said.

“There is definitely a lack of resources,” she said. “Much of [the Caribbean’s] funding is tied to climate resilience initiatives.

“As of yet, we haven’t particularly branched out in terms of research to the tropical meteorology scope.”

She said the region lacks its own systems for storm observation out in the open ocean. Much of the region’s research is restricted to land.

While climate research centres in the region do exist – such as at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies at Mona, Jones’s alma mater – she said research tends to focus on climate change rather than hurricanes in particular.

“To start attracting people with the right expertise to inform our decision-making and our policymakers, we do need to have a more hands-on approach to how we observe hurricanes. We do need to have equipment and instruments that give us continuous data,” she said.

Dedicated hurricane research in the Caribbean would benefit public understanding on how storms function, Jones said.

In the meantime, she continues her work in Colorado, where she hopes to obtain her Ph.D.

The next CSU Tropical Meteorology Project Forecast will be released on 4 June.

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