For the past decade, and since Hurricane Ike caused a devastating storm surge in the greater Houston area, hurricane forecasters have been wringing their hands over the effectiveness of the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. Ike was designated a “Category 2” storm on the scale, which rates storms from 1 to 5. Categories 3, 4, and 5 are designated “major” hurricanes.
Since Ike was not a “major” hurricane, not everyone took the storm seriously. Ultimately, after much discussion, hurricane scientists decided that the Saffir-Simpson scale should refer only to wind speed (and no longer storm surge), and that the National Hurricane Center should reduce its use in its forecasting products and focus instead. on the threats posed by a particular storm – be it damaging winds, storm surges, or inland flooding from heavy rainfall.
The Saffir-Simpson scale was retained, however, as most Americans were familiar with it, and it remained a useful tool for determining the threat level of a particular storm in general. This was a compromise. Sending hurricane warnings is a messy business, not least because forecasts can and often change, and emergency managers want a simple and clear message they can deliver to residents and business owners.
Now the situation is likely to get even more confusing. At the meeting of the American Meteorological Society last week, AccuWeather announced it is implementing its own “RealImpact Scale for Hurricanes.” This scale also goes from 1 to 5 and will be “based on a wide range of important factors”, according to the company. AccuWeather has declined to share the algorithm it will use to rank hurricanes.
“Unlike the very narrow Saffir-Simpson scale, which only considers wind speed, the more comprehensive AccuWeather RealImpact scale for Hurricanes informs people well about the real impact of a storm, so they can use the most accurate information to estimate the impact of a storm. make the best decisions to protect themselves, their families and property from all the hazards and risks of tropical storms and hurricanes,” said Joel N. Myers, founder and CEO of AccuWeather, in a press release.
A charitable take on this statement is that AccuWeather is trying to innovate where the government has decided to follow the Saffir-Simpson scale over the past decade. (There is little disagreement among meteorologists that the existing scale is flawed.) Therefore, in creating its new hurricane scale, AccuWeather is simply trying to create a more holistic rating system that encompasses a hurricane’s myriad threats.
Reasons for Concern
However, there are also some legitimate concerns. First, the new scale introduces complexity and confusion into the system, as there are bound to be times when a hurricane will have one rating on the Saffir-Simpson scale and another on the AccuWeather scale, which will be used in hurricane news reports. and tropical storm on AccuWeather.com and on the AccuWeather Network. Confusion is exactly what rescuers hope to avoid in the frantic lead-up to a hurricane landing.
There is also the issue of the hype. When bad weather threatens, viewers flock to local television news and websites to get the latest on the storm. (During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, my personal weather site for Houston eclipsed 1 million page views in one day. On a typical day, there are about 10,000 views). The incentive in hurricane coverage, therefore, is to hype the threat of a storm while causing eyeballs and clicks. This may or may not affect AccuWeather’s scale, but without a disclosed algorithm it’s hard to say for sure.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore the possible political machinations behind the move. In 2005, then-Senator Rick Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania, the home state of AccuWeather, sponsored a bill that would have limited the ability of the National Weather Service and its National Hurricane Center division to communicate forecasts to the public. (The National Weather Service is doing an excellent job, by the way. The forecasters are currently working during the government shutdown, without pay). This bill, which ridiculously sought to limit public access to important weather information paid for by taxpayers, was rejected.
But this hasn’t stopped AccuWeather from reducing the National Weather Service’s ability to share weather forecasts in favor of private companies that provide these services. It seems possible that the current scale was created as a private alternative to the Saffir-Simpson scale and to possibly bypass it.
And AccuWeather can still succeed. The US Senate declined to go ahead with President Trump’s nomination of Barry Myers to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the end of 2018. NOAA oversees the National Weather Service. Myers was a chief executive at AccuWeather (and is the brother of AccuWeather founder Joel Myers). However, pending his renomination to head NOAA, Myers stepped down as an officer and director of AccuWeather and its subsidiaries and affiliates effective January 1, 2019, and sold all of his interests in those companies.
The stakes are high here. A recent short book by noted author Michael Lewis, The coming storm, emphasizes the apparent purpose here for the Myers family. Essentially, some private weather companies want taxpayers to pay for NOAA to collect massive amounts of weather data and modeling and then taxpayers to pay private companies to interpret it in the form of 10-day forecasts and the like. This may cast AccuWeather’s RealImpact scale in a somewhat darker light.
List image by Alex Gerst/NASA/ESA