Uncertainty in Hurricane Joaquin forecast sparks debate among meteorologists

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – If you’ve been in the East long enough, you’ve no doubt heard about spaghetti plots during hurricane season. Despite the fact that it may seem sometimes like we’re literally throwing the beloved pasta at the wall and capturing the result, these maps are an important part of forecasting tropical systems.


Figuring out where Hurricane Joaquin would ultimately go was difficult for a number of reasons. Late last week, an area of high pressure was building out in the western Atlantic. Couple that with a strengthening trough and upper level low in the Southeast, and you had a battle for Joaquin. Many models, including the American-based Global Forecast System, or GFS, curved the storm back west toward the East Coast. These models assumed that high pressure would win out and that the clockwise flow around the system would push Joaquin westward. One lone model though, the European (ECMWF), kept the hurricane well offshore. This solution assumed that the trough and upper level low would dominate and give Joaquin the boot out to sea. Of course, we all know which scenario eventually won out. But the different solutions have renewed the debate on which model performs best.

Scott Curtis, a professor in the ECU Deptartment of Geography, weighs in:

”We’re always improving these models. We’re always trying to make them better. We’re always trying to learn from past events. And the issue is these models are never gonna be perfect.”

Earlier this year, NOAA announced that over 40 million dollars was put toward improvements to the American GFS forecast model in an effort to “catch up” to the European.


2012: Superstorm Sandy slams into the Jersey shore. 2015: Hurricane Joaquin passes harmlessly out to sea. Two storms with two completely different impacts. The one thing they have in common: one weather forecast model had the track of both storms correct days before any of the others. That model, the European, is lauded by some as superior to the American based G-F-S forecast model.

”The question of why the European model is better than some of these other American models or other country’s models is still really an open question and I think that’s something that’s really going to need to be diagnosed,” said Curtis.

But even Curtis agrees, the Euro has its downfalls.

”The European Center Model did well this time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always gonna be the best model,” explained Curtis. “These other models may outperform  the European model in different cases.”

The computing capacity of the GFS model was increased by ten times earlier this year in an effort to catch up with the higher computing power of the European. Some are wondering if we still have a ways to go. Officials at NOAA have weighed in too. Last weekend, the National Hurricane Center tweeted this:


William Lapenta, the director of the National Weather Service’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) added:


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