Jacksonville, FL - “It was unusual in many, many ways.”
That’s how National Hurricane Center Hurricane Specialist Unit Branch Chief James Franklin described the storm that would eventually become Category 4 Joaquin- encountering El Faro and hampering efforts to save the sinking vessel and her 33 person crew.
Franklin says they were off on projecting track and intensity by a wide margin- “much larger than normal” errors on both the 3-day forecast, which showed Joaquin’s track off by 536 miles, and intensity 80 knots too low. They initially expected the storm to weaken and move north, when in fact it strengthened and moved south.
“That’s an extraordinarily large error. That’s really about a one in one hundred type of track error,” Franklin says.
Part of the reason is Joaquin was “particularly resistant” to wind shear, which was expected to tear apart the storm. Franklin says it’s still unclear what led Joaquin to vary as it did.
When it comes to forecasting a storm with a high degree of uncertainty and outlier tracks, Franklin says they abide by a “consistency” mindset. They’ve learned over the years that making drastic changes in forecasting has a tendency to turn people away, so it takes something substantial for them to consider outlying tracks or make big changes in the forecast. That mindset played in to Joaquin, as well as blowback they’d received from forecasting for Erika earlier in the season. Franklin says it got an unwarranted amount of attention, and his Unit was criticized for “losing the message”. After that, they started issuing condensed information points to media sources to try to better focus, especially for uncertain tracks.
FULL COVERAGE: El Faro sinking
Overall, he says tracking has vastly improved, but as Joaquin shows, intensity forecasting is still in need of improvement, especially because it’s so intertwined with tracking.
“The two forecasts were linked- and failing to get one caused a problem for the other, and getting one would have helped us with the other,” Franklin says.
The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation probing the El Faro’s sinking asked Franklin what, if anything, his unit would benefit from in order to improve forecasting. He says there are “tons of things”, including more opportunities to observe storms and collect more data, but he wouldn’t say whether something like that should be prioritized against the needs of other federal agencies.
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