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Date of Issue: April 28, 2005

Sandscript

Some hurricane news you may be able to use

A British computer model may aid in forecasting hurricane hits in the United States.

The model is based upon wind patterns over parts of North America, the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean. Readings will be taken in July to offer a glimpse into what the August-September weather will be, specifically during the height of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Readings are taken to elevations of more than 4 miles above the earth's surface, then factored into the model. Using a "hindsight" forecast of the past 54 years, the computer run did very well, according to scientists.

One more trick to put in the forecasting bag.

And speaking of hurricane forecasts ...

According to Dr. William Gray, a meteorologist with Colorado State University who has been predicting Atlantic hurricanes for 22 years, the 2005 storm season will be another active one.

"We estimate that 2005 will have about seven hurricanes (average is 5.9), 13 named storms (average is 9.6), 65 named storm days (average is 49), 35 hurricane days (average is 24.5), three intense (Category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 2.3) and seven intense hurricane days (average is five)," he wrote in an April 1 forecast.

"We expect Atlantic basin net tropical cyclone activity in 2005 to be about 135 percent of the long-term average. The probability of major hurricane landfall is estimated to be 140 percent of the long-period average. We expect this year to continue the past-decade trend of above-average hurricane seasons."

Great.

Not really, but Gray and his team use a whole slew of global weather data to create his forecast as well as factoring in historical information. They're pretty much right-on, year after year.

Circles within circles

Everyone knows that hurricanes rotate in a counterclockwise direction. That's the big circle you see on aerial photography or radar that can stretch for miles and miles.

What scientists are now discovering, though, is that there are also counterclockwise winds that spin vertically within the storm, winds that can produce extremely powerful gusts several hundred yards across.

These aren't winds like you get with a tornado, by the way, but are more of a circle running from a height of 3,000 feet to the ground.

It's those unexpected and strong gusts that can take out one house and leave another next door unscathed, according to a team of scientists at the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo.

The group first noticed the phenomenon nine years ago when they brought a truck outfitted with Doppler radar to North Carolina to get an up-close-and-personal view of Hurricane Fran.

What the radar revealed were intense wind speeds scattered throughout the eye wall of the storm, interspersed with relatively calm winds.

So what?

Well, scientists are working on figuring out if these circles have anything to do with steering the overall storm. They're also interested in how the circles react to topographic features. If, say, the storm approaches a set of tall condominiums, does the storm slow down, speed up, change course, or hover?

As the severe weather center lead scientist told the St. Petersburg Times, "Maybe it's good, at least when it comes to these wind gusts in a hurricane, to have tall structures on barrier islands to act as a shield. Maybe it's bad. We just don't know right now."

The group has gone through eight storms so far, and is gearing up for more data collection this summer.

Scary storm stats

Dammit, leave! But a lot of people didn't.

A study by Florida State University on hurricane evacuation patterns in 2004 showed that only 53 percent of people ordered to seek safe haven followed the orders and left their low-lying homes before Hurricane Charley made landfall.

That figure is despite the fact that 60 percent of the people knew of the evacuation decree.

And get this: 56 percent of those living in mobile homes refused to follow the mandatory evacuation orders.

Why not leave? According to the survey, of those that stayed put, 34 percent did not think the storm would hit them, 21 percent did not think the storm was all that powerful, and 12 percent believed their house was safe.

Right - a safe house in the face of 145-mph winds.

The study included Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Residents of Anna Maria Island, you remember, were told to leave before Hurricane Charley's approach. You also may remember that the storm, with 145-mph winds, was predicted to make landfall at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. That would have placed the "ugly" side of the storm right over the Island.

To our credit, almost everybody on the Island left. Emergency management officials at the time estimated that less than a score of stubborn residents refused to budge from their houses Aug. 13 as Charley neared. Fortunately for us, the storm veered to the east and made landfall in Punta Gorda.

As National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield told the Tampa Tribune, "If Charley had remained in the Gulf longer and hit toward Tampa, it could have been a Hurricane Andrew type of hurricane."

All emergency management officials have agreed they need to beef up their efforts to get the word out to people, but who isn't glued to the tube when a storm approaches? Jeez, we've got one of the top media markets in the country in the Tampa Bay area ... you'd think that the "aw, I didn't know anything was coming" crowd wouldn't amount to much here, but I guess not.

We'll be doing our part at The Islander with our annual hurricane section scheduled for late May.

Hurricane season, by the way, starts June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

Sign up right away for this one?

For any eco-friends who just happen to win the lottery, here's a way to spend some of the cash.

The Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota and Mote Marine Laboratory are offering a three-night package at the resort that includes having the participants help install a "high tech satellite transmitter with Mote scientists to a free-ranging Gulf shark. The shark is not harmed by the experience and the satellite tag helps gather critically important shark population data. Once home, purchasers will be able to track ‘their' shark when the scientists receive the electronic data and e-mail it on to them."

The three-night stay costs $9,920 and includes all sorts of behind-the-scene stuff at Mote plus a big luxury package at the Ritz. You also get a T-shirt.

"Definitely not your garden variety weekend away from home, the package is a top-of-the-food-chain experience offering an exciting opportunity to indulge yourself and contribute to the knowledge of our oceans," said a Mote spokesperson.

Call the Ritz at 309-2000 to sign up.

Helping our feathered friends

The federal government is working with power plant operators across the country to, as they put it, "reduce avian and operational risks that result from avian interactions with electric utility facilities."

In other words, bird electrocutions on power lines.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with the utility companies to mesh a custom plan to each power plant and power line. Of particular concern are migratory and big birds.

"Electrocutions are a particular threat to birds with large wingspans, such as eagles, hawks, and owls - all species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," according to the feds. "Wire strikes are a problem for many different bird species. Birds also can cause power outages and fires, resulting in increased costs and inconvenience for electric utilities and their customers."

Sandscript factoid

In the past 50 years, 86 percent of all hurricane strikes and 96 percent of all major hurricane landfalls in the United States have taken place after Aug. 1.

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