Hurricane season in the Atlantic brings high winds, heavy rains, storm surges and potential destruction to coastal areas each year. Modern technology allows us to closely track these strong tropical cyclones in real-time as they form and make their way across the ocean. This enables better preparedness and earlier response.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the various maps, models and tools available for real-time hurricane tracking from detection to landfall.
How Hurricanes Form
Hurricanes begin as tropical disturbances – clusters of thunderstorms over warm ocean waters. With the right conditions, they can strengthen into tropical depressions, then tropical storms and finally a hurricane.
The key ingredients for hurricane formation include:
- Warm Ocean Temperatures: At least 26.5°C (80°F) through a deep layer of the ocean. This provides energy and evaporation.
- Wind Shear: Low vertical wind shear allows thunderstorm activity to organize and build vertically. High shear disrupts development.
- Moisture: High humidity in the mid to upper troposphere.
- Spin: Rotating winds near the ocean surface help concentrate the storm’s power.
Tracking begins once the system develops into a tropical depression with maximum sustained winds below 39 mph.
Following Storms with Hurricane Tracking Maps
Once a tropical system strengthens into a depression or storm, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) initiates advisories every 6 hours with critical details. These include the storm’s current location, direction it’s moving, maximum winds, possible hazards, watches and warnings.
- GOES East and GOES West satellites provide continuous images of weather systems approaching North America. Infrared images show cloud tops and temperature, indicating storm structure.
- Visible satellite maps let us see the hurricane during daytime as it churns over the ocean. We can spot the eye, eye wall, rain bands and extent of cloud cover.
- Water vapor imagery indicates areas of dry air vs. moist air. Dry air can impede development so this gives clues about strengthening or weakening.
- Microwave images peer into the core of the storm revealing features typically obscured by cloud tops. This helps locate the low level center.
- Lightning maps from ground based sensors show lightning activity. More lightning indicates a strengthening storm.
Surface Analysis Maps
Surface analysis charts show current conditions over the ocean. Features include:
- Position of the tropical cyclone eye, wind speeds extending outward, forecast track and cone of uncertainty.
- High and low pressure systems, frontal boundaries.
- Temperature, dewpoint, wind barbs showing direction and speed.
- Watches and warnings along the coast as the storm approaches landfall.
New surface analysis maps are issued every 3 hours with the latest data.
As the hurricane nears land, coastal and land-based Doppler radar provides detailed scans updating every 5-10 minutes. The radar sweeps can see inside the storm structure.
Key features visible on radar include:
- The eye wall, eye and rain bands. Intense convective bursts signal strengthening.
- Areas of heavy rain, helping predict flood potential.
- Tornadoes forming in outer rain bands as they move onshore.
Tracking Models and Model Ensemble Forecasts
Sophisticated computer models use the latest data on current atmospheric and oceanic conditions to forecast the path and intensity of hurricanes.
- GFS (Global Forecast System): Reliable model by the National Weather Service run 4x daily out to 16 days. Good for broader forecast but less precise with tropical cyclones.
- ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts): Very accurate global model out to 15 days run 2x daily. Performs well predicting hurricane track.
- HWRF (Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting): Specialized hurricane model with high resolution and advanced physics. Run by NOAA when storms form, provides key intensity guidance.
- HMON (Hurricane Multi-scale Ocean-coupled Non-hydrostatic): High resolution model incorporating ocean coupling for better intensity forecasts. Still experimental but shows promise.
Model Ensemble Forecasts
Taking many models and creating a consensus “ensemble” forecast improves accuracy and accounts for uncertainty.
- GFS Ensemble: 21 slightly different versions of GFS model for a range of scenarios.
- ECMWF Ensemble: 51 member ensemble along with high resolution run provides a complete forecast picture.
- NHC Official Forecast: Expert meteorologists review all data and models then issue the official track, intensity and wind field forecasts. Carries the most weight.
Analyzing Model Data for Key Details
Model guidance provides a huge dataset to analyze, here are key elements to examine:
Storm Track and Timing
- Forecast cone: Probable track area, important for evacuations and preparations. Narrows as landfall approaches.
- Average forecast errors: Historical errors help determine how much confidence to place in the projected path.
- Forward speed: Slower moving storms have higher rainfall and inland flood potential.
- Maximum winds: Peak 1-min surface winds forecast. Look for rapid strengthening signals.
- Minimum central pressure: Lower pressure intensifies winds. Check for anomalies like rapid drops.
- Wind radius forecasts: Size of hurricane force, tropical storm force winds expanding from the center.
- Ocean heat content: Warmer water provides fuel for strengthening so check heat along the track.
- Spaghetti models: Clustered vs. widely spread tracks indicate more or less certainty.
- Run-to-run consistency: Look for the forecast “trend” rather than a single model run.
Interpreting the NHC Discussion and Public Advisories
NHC meteorologists synthesize the myriad model data into an official forecast, issuing:
- Public Advisories every 6 hours with latest details.
- Forecast Discussion explains reasoning behind the forecast and model interpretations.
- Hazard maps highlighting risk areas for winds, storm surge, rain.
- Watches and warnings along affected coast as landfall nears.
The NHC experts provide an invaluable human perspective, considering subtle factors models may miss. Pay close attention to their analysis for actionable information.
Real-Time Hurricane Data and Forecast Resources
Many excellent free online resources exist to track active storms in real-time:
- National Hurricane Center: Official hub for forecasts, discussions, satellite imagery, model data, warnings.
- NOAA Hurricane Research Division: Real-time flight data, forecast model outputs, satellite tools.
- Tropical Tidbits: Clearest model displays including the key ensemble and consensus forecasts.
- Windy: Interactive map layers for forecasts, radar, satellite, webcams, surface data. Excellent for seeing big picture.
- Stormpulse: Real-time and forecast radar, satellite, models, alerts. Layer hurricane and tropical storm tracks.
- HurricaneTrack: Mark Sudduth provides in-depth forecasts, on-ground live streams reporting directly from storms.
Bringing Tracking Layers Together
Modern tracking provides a wealth of real-time data. Putting the pieces together gives the best snapshot:
- NHC official forecast cone + ensemble model data shows possible track scenarios and uncertainty.
- Surface analysis map + satellite reveals current intensity, structure, and hazards expanding outward.
- Radar + satellite pinpoints intense convective areas signaling strengthening.
- Ocean heat map + wind shear analysis provides clues on conducive conditions for growth.
- Webcams + live video feeds put you on the ground as conditions deteriorate.
- Social media + storm chaser reports give real-time perspectives from affected areas.
Storm Preparations Based on Track Details
Advanced warning and tracking details allow better proactive preparations:
- Evacuate vulnerable coastal regions if projected landfall location and surge height threaten.
- Protect property by securing outdoor objects, installing hurricane covers/shutters, storing important documents and valuables.
- Gather supplies like food, water, batteries, medications to shelter in place if needed.
- Prepare for power loss with backup generator, fuel, batteries. Charge devices.
- Address safety risks like downed power lines, flooded roads, tornadoes, landslides.
- Monitor alerts and warnings for dangerous conditions and take appropriate actions. Don’t venture out unnecessarily.
- Have post-storm plans for recovery including insurance assessments, document damage, contact aid organizations if needed.
Tracking the Storm – Hour by Hour as Landfall Nears
In the critical hours before and after landfall, tracking becomes even more important:
- 6-12 hours out: Final NHC forecast cone, intensity prediction, radar monitoring. Watches upgraded to warnings.
- 3-6 hours out: Satellite view of eye structure, lightning bursts. Surface maps show expanding wind field as outer bands arrive.
- 1-3 hours out: Radar shows heavy rain bands moving onshore signaling arrival of winds, surge. Take final preparations.
- Landfall: Hurricane’s dangerous eyewall comes ashore bringing destructive winds, life-threatening storm surge.
- 1-3 hours after: Eye passes overhead bringing brief calm then dangerous backside eyewall strikes. Tornado risk increases.
- 3-6 hours after: Outer rainbands can still produce tornadoes, flooding. Winds gradually diminish as storm continues inland and weakens.
- 6-12 hours after: Final rainbands push through. Damage assessments begin. Flooding continues. Power restoration underway.
Frequently Asked Questions
When do hurricanes typically form?
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, with the peak from mid-August through late October when ocean waters are warmest.
How far in advance can a hurricane be detected?
Tropical disturbances can be spotted up to two weeks in advance but reliable track forecasts are typically only possible about 3-5 days before landfall as the system develops and models have more data to initialize.
Subscribe to our list
Don't worry, we don't spam
What category are the most intense hurricanes?
Hurricanes are rated on the 1 to 5 Saffir-Simpson Scale based on maximum sustained winds. Category 3, 4 and 5 storms with winds 111 mph or greater are considered “major” hurricanes capable of devastating damage.
How often do hurricanes make direct landfall in the US?
On average between 3 to 4 hurricanes make landfall in the continental US each season. Many more brush by just offshore or track farther inland after landfall. The stretch from Texas to North Carolina is most threatened.
How can you tell if a hurricane is strengthening rapidly?
Signs of quick strengthening include a rapidly organizing eye, intense lightning activity, strengthening concentric eyewall, dramatic drop in central pressure, expanding wind field, development of a warm core confirmed by satellite.
What should you do if you cannot evacuate before a hurricane arrives?
Shelter in place in a secure interior room without windows on the lowest level of your home. Have supplies for all family members and pets. Turn fridge to coldest setting and fill with ice. Charge devices fully. Park car securely and move outside objects indoors. Close interior doors and brace external doors. Be ready to head to secure shelter if needed until danger passes.
Staying up to date with the latest tracking maps, model forecasts, official NHC analysis and weather details provides the best data to prepare and respond as hurricane threats approach. While storms bring heavy impacts, modern technology allows us to reduce risks by closely following their anticipated path and intensity in real-time.