Hurricane Outlooks: An Exercise in Futility?

September 21st, 2013 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

I believe it was either the hyper-hurricane season of 2005, or the hurricane-drought year of 2006, when my sister living the the Florida Keys complained that the National Hurricane Center shouldn’t even be making seasonal outlooks of hurricane activity.

I defended the NHC outlooks, saying that they do, after all, have some small level of skill. But with this year’s hurricane season shaping up to be another ‘drought’ when ‘floods’ of hurricanes were forecast, I’m beginning to think she had a point. Even if there is “some” skill in forecasting how many hurricanes will form in the entire Atlantic basin, there is no way to know weeks or months in advance where they will hit land, if at all.

In my sister’s case, she and her husband built a nearly hurricane-proof house in Summerland Key, and they were pummeled relentlessly in 2005. Thinking that they needed a safer place to park their sailboat when hurricane season arrives, they then built another coastal house in North Carolina, well west of Cape Hatteras safely tucked up in Pamlico Sound.

Well, guess what happened? Hurricanes stopped hitting the Keys…and instead a hurricane nailed their NC house. So much for planning in advance.

Now, I don’t really think the NHC will ever stop making hurricane season outlooks. I have been told the apparently true story of an U.S. Army Air Force general in World War II who needed a weather forecast weeks in advance, but was told the forecast would have no skill. The general understood that, but needed the forecast “for planning purposes” anyway.

Maybe we can say the same thing about economic forecasts, which also have little skill. People know that have little skill, but make decisions based upon them anyway.

And let’s not forget the IPCC’s super-long-range forecasts of global warming, or climate change, or climate disruption, or whatever they are calling it these days.

I gave an invited talk at a conference of economists a couple years ago, and was struck by how well those on opposite sides of the economic philosophy spectrum got along with each other. I mentioned how antagonistic climate alarmists and skeptics are to one another, and asked why the economists managed to get along so well? I was told that they had all been proved wrong so many times that they had been sufficiently humbled by their experiences.

I can only hope that we are seeing the beginnings of something similar in the climate research community. We skeptics have been saying for years, in effect, “you know, we really don’t know enough about the response of the climate system to be predicting what adding 1 or 2 molecules of CO2 to 10,000 molecules of air is going to do, if anything.”

Warming has stopped. Who would have ever predicted that — except a skeptic?

The IPCC admits they have little confidence in how hurricanes might change with warming. No measures of severe weather, with the possible exception of locally heavy rainfall, have been demonstrated to have changed with warming.

Like hurricane activity, what we can be sure of is that every year, more likely than not, will be different than the previous year. The U.S. will see record warmth one year, then record cold the next. Weather will change, and climate will change.

What direction will it change? Well, you can either spend billions of coins on research to find out, or you can flip one of those coins. The level of skill might well be about the same.

But who needs skill? We need forecasts and outlooks and projections…”for planning purposes”.

21 Responses to “Hurricane Outlooks: An Exercise in Futility?”

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  1. Ian says:


    Sorry if this is a bit off-topic for the hurricanes, but it does have to do with your discussion of IPCC certainty. I understand your argument about those, such as Trenberth, who claim the excess heat must be going into the deep ocean to explain the slowdown/pause in warming over the last ~15 years, in that such point measurements of deep ocean temperature rising by hundredths or thousandths of a degree are far too uncertain because the error bars on these measurements are larger than the measurements themselves.

    Yet, some scientists claim excess heat must be going into the deep ocean because satellite measurements of Earth’s energy balance continue to show an increasing discrepancy between the heat entering the climate system (mainly sunlight entering) and the total amount leaving it (I would suppose measurements of infrared radiation leaving the top of the atmosphere).

    This argument seems to contradict the claim some of these same scientists have made, that the “pause” could be explained by some unknown aerosol cooling forcing over the past ~15 years (I believe Hansen was one who made this argument). This argument would imply that the “missing” or excess heat is not entering the climate system in the first place because it’s being reflected out to space beforehand.

    What do you make of this apparent contradiction in the arguments to explain where the “missing” heat has gone? Am I understanding correctly that this is a contradiction? Can the amounts of energy entering and leaving the Earth climate system be reliably measured with today’s satellite technology?

    Thank you,

  2. D'Avila Tarcisio says:

    Dr. Roy say:
    We skeptics have been saying for years, in effect, “you know, we really don’t know enough about the response of the climate system to be predicting what adding 1 or 2 molecules of CO2 to 10,000 molecules of air is going to do, if anything.”

    I say. When studying functions in math, y=f(x) are making an abstraction because in nature as y=f(a,b,c,d,….. unknown factors) and the response we add y=f(x)if other factors remaining constant.
    A climatic factor was unknown to me, the condensation`s water (liquid) in the atmosphere of the order of 5g per kg of air. It seems to me that can explain the climate changes, the counter-flow IR 350w/m^2, and the emission to space 240w/m^2 (constant flow,aproximaately).
    This would be the unknown factor that explains the “global warming” and CO2 becomes innocuous.

  3. RW says:

    Yeah, no one really knows or can predict.

  4. Thanks, good post, Dr. Spencer.

    I have been tracking Atlantic hurricanes and their forecasts for years. The forecasts are amusing, the hurricanes not.
    If the skill of the forecasts goes down, we’ll see who blames their forecasting abilities and who blames CO2.

    • ren says:

      Consider, when NASA officially announced that the solar cycle will be weakest since 100 years, is secondary cosmic rays since 2008 will not be the highest in 100 years? Is science prepared for it?

  5. John Garrett says:

    It’s obvious that H. sapiens has a deepseated desire to know the future. As usual, demand is supplied. Unfortunately, that makes them susceptible to all kinds of buncombe artists and flim-flammers. History is replete with examples of confidence men. Emotions override logic and experience which, as Mr. Dillow explains below allows for money-making opportunities.

    The title of Messrs. Powdthavee and Riyanto’s referenced paper?
    “Why Do People Pay for Useless Advice? Implications of Gambler’s and Hot-Hand Fallacies in False-Expert Setting”

    “The strong demand for charlatans”
    by Chris Dillow
    May 27, 2012

    In the improbable event of ever being invited to give a commencement address, my advice to graduates wanting a lucrative career would be: become a charlatan. There has always been a strong demand for witchdoctors, seers, quacks, pundits, mediums, tipsters and forecasters. A nice new paper ( )by Nattavudh Powdthavee ( ) and Yohanes Riyanto ( ) shows how quickly such demand arises.

    They got students in Thailand and Singapore to bet upon a series of five tosses of a fair coin. They were given five numbered envelopes, each of which contained a prediction for the numbered toss. Before the relevant toss, they could pay to see the prediction. After the toss, they could freely see the prediction.

    The predictions were organized in such a way that after the first toss half the subjects saw an incorrect prediction and half a correct one, after the second toss a quarter saw two correct predictions, and so on. The set-up is similar to Derren Brown’s The System, which gave people randomly-generated tips on horses, with a few people receiving a series of correct tips.

    And here’s the thing. Subjects who saw just two correct predictions were 15 percentage points more likely to buy a prediction for the third toss than subjects who got a right and wrong prediction in the earlier rounds. Subjects who saw four successive correct tips were 28 percentage points more likely to buy the prediction for the fifth round.

    This tells us that even intelligent and numerate people are quick to misperceive randomness and to pay for an expertise that doesn’t exist; the subjects included students of sciences, engineering and accounting. The authors say:

    Observations of a short streak of successful predictions of a truly random event are sufficient to generate a significant belief in the hot hand.
    It’s easy to believe that this happens in real life. For example, the people who are thought to have predicted the financial crisis of 2008 are invested with an expertise which they might not really have.

    Of course, there are other reasons why people might want to pay for forecasts; maybe they want a false sense of security of a predictable world, or they want someone to blame if things go wrong. This paper, however, suggests that these are not the only motives. Instead, people are too quick to perceive skill and thus to pay for something that doesn’t exist. The demand for forecasters and tipsters substantially exceeds the real ability such pundits actually have.

  6. Arfur Bryant says:

    [“Hurricane Outlooks: An Exercise in Futility?”]


    Predicting ECS from a model: An Exercise in Futility?

    Hell yes.


  7. Milton Hathaway says:

    So, it seems that the IPCC models have demonstrated a lack of skill in predicting the recent lack of warming. It is my understanding that the theory of catastrophic AGW (CAGW) is based solely on computer models – it’s just way too complex to analyze without them.

    Now I am confused – why do the CAGW proponents persist when the sole scientific basis for the theory has collapsed?

    Do the IPCC models account for heat storage in the oceans? If yes, can’t we conclude that aspect of the models has also failed (shown a lack of skill), since the models apparently missed the recent rise in ocean heat storage? If the models don’t account for heat storage in the oceans, isn’t it just conjecture?

    You don’t need to be a great thinker to understand the the above thought process, just a little common sense. Common sense says to ignore the CAGW scammers and oppose their harmful agenda until they can show some scientific basis (i.e., skillful models) behind their pronouncements.

    The ball is firmly in their court to prove they are something more that a pseudo-scientific cult.

    • Lewis Guignard says:

      The IPCC is not about science but politics. The politics vary but include gaining access to government funds for their personal use (see Dr. Spencer’s comments about inability of naysayers to gain funds), along with influencing society and how we all live. 25 or 30 years ago the hue and cry was global cooling, an ice age commeth, and the bugaboo was industrialized society, the same culprit of AGW. Currently, if I recall correctly, the IPCC is out with a new report containing even stronger language than previously, yet GW seems to have paused. Why then is the IPCC following this wrongheaded tack? Because the POTUS is in their camp and they want to influence him because he doesn’t concern himself with what the representatives of the people want, using the EPA and other government assets to inflict his will on all the people. As he is not up for reelection, the IPCC sees its time as limited. Strike while etc.

  8. When the globe is warming the climate zones either side of the equator expand and push the jets poleward to reduce cloudiness and let more energy into the oceans.

    In that scenario hurricanes have more energy to play with and can travel greater distances before being incorporated into the mid latitude jet streams.

    So, an active sun leads to stronger hurricane activity.

    I propose that an active sun acrually pulls the climate zones poleward by altering the state of the polar vortices. It causes them to become higher vertically but more compact horizontally in order to pull the entire global circulation pattern poleward.

    An inactive sun leads to the opposite as we are now seeing.

    In theory our emissions were supposed to push the jets poleward and create stronger hurricanes.

    In reality, despite increasing emissions, the opposite has happened and the change in trend coincided with the less active sun and shallower, flabbier polar vortices.

  9. ren says:

    There will be a hurricane. The cold jet stream will be pulled clouds to the north.

  10. pochas says:

    Lots of warm water around 40 north. Could this suppress hurricanes?

  11. ren says:

    Look at the Jetstream. Ambient air counts with Africa, and now it is too low.;sess=

  12. Frank says:

    It is worth noting that hurricanes are powered by the temperature difference between SST and the temperature at the top of its convection, not by SST alone. And the relationship between average wind strength and SSTs shows something like a 7 mph increase per degree, which is certainly not enough to account for an increase in high category storms today.

  13. Dr. Strangelove says:

    “I’ll leave it to you to determine whether there has been a recent increase in wind speed which might support Trenberth’s view that increased surface winds have increased ocean mixing and thereby increased the rate of heat storage in the deep ocean”

    Roy, no need for extraordinary mechanism in the ocean to explain the current warming pause. Natural cycles in the Pacific ocean is enough.

    (Kosaka & Xie, 2013)

    “Despite the continued increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the annual-mean global temperature has not risen in the twenty-first century, challenging the prevailing view that anthropogenic forcing causes climate warming… Here we show that accounting for recent cooling in the eastern equatorial Pacific reconciles climate simulations and observations. We present a novel method of uncovering mechanisms for global temperature change by prescribing, in addition to radiative forcing, the observed history of sea surface temperature over the central to eastern tropical Pacific in a climate model. Although the surface temperature prescription is limited to only 8.2% of the global surface, our model reproduces the annual-mean global temperature remarkably well with correlation coefficient r = 0.97 for 1970–2012 (which includes the current hiatus and a period of accelerated global warming)”

    “Moreover, our simulation captures major seasonal and regional characteristics of the hiatus, including the intensified Walker circulation, the winter cooling in northwestern North America and the prolonged drought in the southern USA. Our results show that the current hiatus is part of natural climate variability, tied specifically to a La-Niña-like decadal cooling. Although similar decadal hiatus events may occur in the future, the multi-decadal warming trend is very likely to continue with greenhouse gas increase.”

  14. John Owens says:

    Dr Strangelove, your reference includes the statement: “Our results show that the current hiatus is part of natural climate variability, tied specifically to a La-Niña-like decadal cooling.” Of coarse; I am sure you are aware that the El Nino part of the natural cycle produces warming and is responsible for the warming cycle that occurred prior to the current hiatus.

  15. Hops says:

    Dr. Spencer,

    When you say “Warming has stopped” would it be fair to qualify that as global average lower troposphere warming?

    My understanding is that sea level continues to rise due primarily to thermal expansion. So there is far more to the globe in “global” than the LT. Marine biologists have also noted that the range of marine species are moving toward the poles.

    I say “average” because the trend in the Artic is very pronounced, but the relative lack of warming in the Antarctic and tropics bring down the average.

    When I was a kid, over 40 years ago, what is now happening in the Arctic would have been unimaginable.

  16. Frank K. says:

    “When I was a kid, over 40 years ago, what is now happening in the Arctic would have been unimaginable.”





    CHRISTIANIA, September 1

    The Norwegian, Captain Wiktor Arnesen, who has just returned from the Arctic, claims to have discovered an island 12 miles in circumference near the Franz Joseph Island, in latitude 80.40. He says that the island previously was hidden by an iceberg between 70 and 80 feet high, which has melted, showing the exceptional nature of the recent thawing in the Arctic.

    (September 3, 1923)

  17. wayne says:

    Dr. Spencer, it might be too late in this thread to ask a question, if not, you say:

    “The most physically sound portion of global warming predictions is that adding CO2 to the atmosphere causes about a 1% energy imbalance in the system (energy imbalances are what cause temperature to change), …”

    I have followed this climate discussion very close for four years now and that very statement keeps being stated over and over and I keep asking where is the atmosphere scale experiment that shows this, its as if you can add black ink to a bottle of already black ink and make it blacker” and all I get back is just words, no substance.

    I mean by that due to the complete opacity CO2 will, as expected, radiate at both the TOA upward and near the surface downward (really all directions) per its local environment’s temperature.

    Since our atmosphere is already totally opaque to the primary CO2 lines, on spectrums there are absolutely none above the ~216K level on spectrums (the “bite”), meaning none of the radiation at co2’s frequencies at 20km is coming from the surface but from the TOA only, right?. Where are the lab experiments proving this, well, not absolutely true, but feasibly true? I do realize CO2 is a strong absorber, so strong in fact that to me it has taken itself out of the picture as far as I can see. Just to note: I also know all re-emission is isotropic but no one to date has ever given me a satisfactory response. Want to try? I would sincerely appreciate it, this is not a loaded question, but you might only be able to say the same, that everyone knows that, and that is how you know. Generally that’s all I get back.

    I’m fairly versed in optical depths and spectrums if your answer need to include those. I don’t think you will go over my head if you have the time to answer this.

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