What We Can Learn from Hermine

A University at Albany professor helps make sense of the storm that virtually wasn’t, and whether the hysteria was avoidable

This year’s Labor Day Weekend plans turned out to be a little more anticlimactic than most of us might have liked. And that’s largely due to a certain storm that, from being mistaken for a character in the Harry Potter universe to recently being downgraded to post-tropical cyclone status, seems to have been suffering from an identity crisis.

But as of this afternoon, the National Hurricane Center definitively discontinued all coastal warnings regarding Hermine (pronounced HER-MEAN), leaving locals a bit dismayed at the thought of all that potential end-of-summer fun they’ll never get back. So what gives? We turned to Brian Tang, an assistant professor at University at Albany’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, to get the inside scoop on why Hermine didn’t live up to its potential, whether weathermen are to blame, and what we should keep in mind come the next round of stormy warnings.    

 

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How did Hermine end up on such a different trajectory than anticipated?

Storms like Hermine interact with the jet stream, and because of that, they’re very complex. They interact in very different ways than, say, a hurricane when it’s deep in the tropics, like in the Caribbean. So what happened with Hermine is that once it got north of the Carolinas, it started interacting with what we call an upper low or trough. Basically, a storm system right around the jet stream where airplanes fly, let’s say eight-to-10 miles up in the atmosphere, and started undergoing a transition into a nor’easter. It’s extremely difficult to predict storms that have this combined hurricane-nor’easter quality to them. I equate it to a bowler; if their spin is just slightly off, the hook is completely different and it affects the game. That timing difference, which is small in meteorological terms, is large in terms of its potential impacts.

 

Knowing that meteorologists have such advanced technology for tracking storms, does this show that weather has a mind of its own?

Well, weather is always unpredictable to some extent, and that’s what makes it fascinating to study. Certain things are easier to forecast than other things, and when the storms happen to occur over very populated areas, everyone pays attention.

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Do you think that weather forecasters have a tendency to sensationalize these storms, or is it their responsibility to warn for the worst?

No, I don’t think there’s any sensationalizing. They take the models and the data, and they interpret it and then have to make a bet. Basically, they give their best forecast from the information that’s at hand. In this case, there was no hyping as far as I could discern. The problem is that often times these days there’s a lot of information out there from official and unofficial sources. The official forecast comes from the National Hurricane Center, and I think they did a very good job. Of course, there are always errors in any forecast, and they have to then adjust the forecast based on the most current models they have.

 

Do you think that particular measures, like the closing down of stretches of New Jersey’s shoreline, were unnecessary?

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Well, it’s a matter of risk. Even if there was a 20-percent chance that Hermine could have made landfall in New Jersey, and that was the best estimate on Friday given the information that we had, is it worth the risk of having the New Jersey shoreline completely packed with people and having a big storm surge come in and having to evacuate all these people and have emergency management deal with it? If that did happen and they didn’t warn people to stay away from the shoreline, you can imagine the public outcry that would have resulted. I think that emergency managers did the right thing.

 

There were some tragic repercussions of Hermine further south, though most Northeasterners were sour over lost Labor Day plans. What should be their biggest take away from this situation?

I think, given that we’ve had storms like Irene and Sandy, and a close call with Hermine, it’s always a reminder that we do live in an area that can be hit by hurricanes or super storms, and it’s important to be prepared and to listen to emergency managers and forecasters, because they know the best.

 

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