Q&A: Hurricane Expert

TIME talks to Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center

Aug 29, 2011 | By Tim Newcomb
JOE RAEDLE—GETTY IMAGES

Forecasters often get blamed for blowing hot air when the weather doesn’t turn out as they predicted. But nobody accuses the National Hurricane Center of anything of the sort. As the team in Miami merges the art of forecasting with a downpour of science, residents across the entire East Coast rely on their information to know how to protect their homes—and to know when to flee.

Already, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's (NOAA) National Hurricane Center has one correct forecast: a batch of early storms over the Atlantic Ocean. And while much of the world hasn't taken notice of the rainy spell until now—Hurricane Irene was the first storm to reach hurricane status this period—this season already boasts nine storms. It’s a troublesome number for so early on.

Eric Blake is a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center. He says a combination of factors have already contributed to a rise in storms in 2011. Blake discussed forecasting hurricane seasons with TIME.

TIME:

When is the hurricane season, and what does an average season look like?

ERIC BLAKE:

August through October is the busiest time, and September is the peak month. But we can still see damaging landfalls in October and it is not out of the question to have a hurricane into November. An average season has about 12 storms.

TIME:

How has the early season played out?

BLAKE:

Things are going as expected. We have already had nine storms and a lot of seasons don't have nine (the official National Hurricane Center seasonal averages are for 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes). We are on track for the active season we forecasted.

TIME:

What factors lead to an active season forecast?

BLAKE:

There are a variety of factors. One of the things is, how warm is the Atlantic Ocean? How warm is it compared to an average year? The other factor is the status of El Niño (el neen-nyo). [El Niño is a natural shift in the way winds and ocean currents travel across the Pacific Ocean. It happens every few years and has a huge effect on weather around the world. Some countries that usually receive a lot of rainfall may suffer from droughts, while heavy rains and flooding often surprise other areas.]

TIME:

Has the Atlantic Ocean been unseasonably warm?

BLAKE:

Year after year over the longer term of 20 to 30 years, we have seen the Atlantic warmer than average, mostly due to sea-surface temperatures.

TIME:

Do you gauge the power of a season on quantity or intensity of storms?

BLAKE:

Actually both. The strength and duration of the storms is the formula we use and we combine them into Accumulated Cyclone Energy. If you get 10 short-lived storms, a couple of big ones count a lot more.

TIME:

Are some seasons harsher in some specific areas and therefore lighter in others?

BLAKE:

There has been some tendency for areas to be hit in North Carolina in one season, but it is hard to know. It is dependent on the steering currents, and those can be quite changeable in some years. Really, they can change in just a few days.

TIME:

Have there been any surprises about this season?

BLAKE:

There are always things that are a little unexpected. We had a lot of storms that didn't make hurricane status early on. It will be easier to assess the season after we have hit the middle of it.