Evacuating myself from the cone of uncertainty

Posted 9/5/19

The most likely scenario for this column, according to the newest computer models, is that it will stall as it approaches the coast and then turn sharply south. Readers in low-lying chairs are …

The News + Record is worth reading!

We’re all about Chatham County, and we welcome you to our site. You can view up to 3 stories each month, then registration is required.

Please sign in below if you have an account. If not, please register here to get an account and an additional 7 stories each month. It’s easy and takes just a minute.

Our staff works hard to bring good journalism, writing and story-telling to Chatham County. HELP US! You can get the News + Record mailed to you weekly by subscribing here.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Evacuating myself from the cone of uncertainty

Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing to the News + Record – you can do so by clicking here.


The most likely scenario for this column, according to the newest computer models, is that it will stall as it approaches the coast and then turn sharply south. Readers in low-lying chairs are advised to evacuate now — or at least stock up on bottled water and peanut M&Ms — and brace for impact.

Or, if we get lucky, a Jim Cantore sighting. (I’m told The Weather Channel celebrity is shorter than he looks on TV.)

You may have guessed that I have Dorian on the brain, and for good reason: my wife Lee Ann and I drove to Florida on Wednesday for a long-planned visit with our son Addison and his wife Charis in the Orlando area, a visit which resulted in a full day spent helping them do hurricane prep (and the obligatory trip to Costco with 6,998 other people) and an early departure for home on Saturday because yours truly was afraid I-95 would be a parking lot on Sunday. (Turns out it wasn’t; still, on Saturday, we made the 560-odd mile trip back in a smooth eight hours flat.)

By the time you read this, this massive hurricane will be impacting North Carolina and maybe even Chatham County — but even then, we may not know its next move.

There was a time when if you heard about European models and spaghetti plots, it probably meant something about a crime drama on BBC, and not a tropical depression. If those phrases — “European models” and “spaghetti plots” — fall within your cone of uncertainty, keep in mind what one forecaster on The Weather Channel reminded us on Monday afternoon this week as Dorian stalled frightfully over the Bahamas: two-thirds of the time, the cone of uncertainty is just plain wrong.

Forecasters are right about a lot, but wrong a lot, obviously. It was that wrongness that kept us — and all of Florida, and probably you — guessing on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, trying to figure out if Dorian was the apocalypse or just a Really Big Hurricane. Turns out it was both. The Bahamas and surrounding islands were decimated with catastrophic devastation, and it remains to be seen how much damage the hurricane will do to the coastal areas of the southeast U.S. and in the Carolinas that so many of us are familiar with.

Predicting hurricanes and their paths isn’t an exact science, as we know, and in this day of 24-hour televised weather channels and armchair forecasters galore and climate change, it seems the cone of uncertainty of our understanding of hurricanes has certainly expanded — especially with a storm so unusual, and so unpredictable, as Dorian. I’m a bit of a weather geek, and in my hunger for information during the weekend, I came across a story that featured a brand-new phrase: “social mediarologist.” Defined, social mediarologists are amateurs who create, or share, misleading forecasts or information online and even challenge the forecasts of experts.

The demand for information is there; the quality and accuracy hasn’t kept up. “The limitations of the science,” one forecaster was quoted as saying, “run up against the demands of society.”

When even the experts are confused, scores of others become flummoxed. This reminds me of the story of one of the worst hurricanes in history, the one in 1900 which struck and submerged Galveston, Texas. In his superb book on that hurricane — the must-read “Isaac’s Storm” — author Erik Larson writes how Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist at the Galveston office of the U.S. Weather Bureau, had written a scholarly paper about how Galveston’s unique geography on the Gulf Coast positioned it so that it would never experience a major hurricane.

Then, on Sept. 7, 1900, when one approached, and Cline finally recognized the ominous signs, he tried desperately to warn the city. Some listened, but others, citing his earlier admonition that Galveston would always be spared, didn’t. More than 8,000 people died in what was still this country’s greatest natural disaster, including Cline’s pregnant wife.

A fascinating portion of the book is devoted to the prognosticating skills of a Spanish Jesuit, Father Benito Vines of Cuba, and other priests in the Caribbean islands who, after studying storm patterns in the 1800s, became uncannily accurate in predicting hurricanes, their scope and their paths. While officials from what became our National Weather Service were forbidding U.S. forecasters to even utter words like “tornado” and “hurricane,” Father Vines and other priests — without the benefit of modern instrumentation and satellite imagery — were nearly as accurate as today’s forecasters.

Clearly, we still have a lot to learn about the weather, but as with Dorian, one lesson continues to be reinforced: often times, it’s predictably unpredictable.


1 comment on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Lucien Wilkins

I’m puzzled as to why the weather service uses the term “Cone of Uncertainty” when it contains the bundle of spaghetti derived from the most accurate hurricane prediction models!! As a physician I would never refer to my likely diagnoses as uncertainties but at least best guesses given the existing and sometimes incomplete data base upon which the likely diagnosis was made. Zone of “best guess” would be a more appropriate name for the drumstick ice cream cone shaped limits of the trajectories. The only true zone of uncertainty I have seen on TV was the manic marker rendition created by our commander in chief! I love figures of speech and write this response with tongue in cheek up until now and speak sincerely when saying your opinion pieces are terrific!!

Thursday, September 5, 2019