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September 10, 2008

From the Gulf, With Love

Hurricane Ike.
Enhanced satellite image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 

by Guy Martin

In the Gulf of Mexico, hurricane season is an endless, hearty series of football weekend frat parties...for the hurricanes. For the 62 meteorologists, forecasters, administrators, and tech support specialists of the National Hurricane Center hunkered down in their war rooms in Miami, it's more like a gauntlet of headlong keggers as faced by campus security.   

In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--the NHC's parent entity--has upped its prediction for the number of storms before November 30, the official end of the season. Specifically, the NOAA puts an 85 percent probability on the gulf and the Atlantic coasts receiving 14 to 18 named storms, of which 7 to 10 will become hurricanes. At least three but as many as six of those will be classified category 3 or higher. The Texas coast, which will be struck by Hurricane Ike this coming Saturday morning, has already been hit twice this season.

"You picked some time to call," says National Hurricane Center spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen from the depths of the NHC's bustling HQ. Feltgen's got ten minutes; he's apologizing for his lack of time. 

"So here we go," he said grimly. 

The city of New Orleans had just white-knuckled its levees through Labor Day's Hurricane Gustav, 72 hours after which Hanna hit Charleston, and a scant 72 hours after that, Hurricane Ike had polished the western tip of Cuba before, early Wednesday morning, moving out into the gulf.   

As everybody from the Yucatan to Alabama's Redneck Riviera knows, a lot can happen to a storm as it weaves through the lattice of the Caribbean archipelago and turns north into the gulf. The gulf is basically a big pond that's very friendly to what the hard-grinding NHC meteorologists formally call "tropical cyclones." The storms use the big water to hang around, to work their abs and biceps, basically, and to figure out whose ass they would next like to kick.      

"With Ike, there was a ridge of high pressure that more or less rode along with the storm," explained Feltgen, "which turned it on a sort of west-northwest course and kept it from plowing due west into the Yucatan, for instance.  But Ike did keep clobbering Cuba. Now, we'll see."

To predict the track of a hurricane--in this instance, the next three days of Ike--NHC meteorologists will crunch up to a dozen computer models of the storm's behavioral possibilities, taking into account the many scenarios of influence exercised by the weather surrounding the cyclone. It is a sea of calculation done round the clock during a storm.

"At any given moment one or two of the models will be off, but what we're looking for is a consensus. Our meteorologists and forecasters are looking at vast amounts of data--storm histories, weather conditions surrounding the storms over time, regional weather histories--in order to find the points at which there will be a consensus among the models about what's likely to happen." 

On the NOAA Web site, NHC scientists have posted an enormous amount of predictive data and data tools. The most fun tools are the three-day and five-day hurricane tracks, or "cones." In Ike's case, the track on Tuesday, September 8, just 24 hours ago, had the storm plowing into South Padre Island on Saturday morning, then heading more or less straight up the Rio Grande, sideswiping Monterrey, Mexico, before dying somewhere over central Texas.   

However, it's the gulf. And it's a hurricane. As of now, midday Wednesday, a high pressure system will stomp in to turn Ike's landfall further north, to the central Texas coast. After that, according to the track, the storm is going take a hard right and rain down on Arkansas and Oklahoma.   

Attention, cowpokes of Arkansas and Oklahoma: Don't get drunk Saturday night! Put the horses in the barn! Your weekend's gonna be a little damp.   

Or . . . not! Saturday's three days off, an eternity in hurricane life. 

"Unfortunately," said Feltgen ominously, before ringing off, "There is no silver bullet, no one model that can tell us absolutely what a storm will do."


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