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On the Prospects for Improved Tropical Cyclone Track Forecasts


The success story of Numerical Weather Prediction is often illustrated with the dramatic decrease of errors in tropical cyclone track forecasts over the past decades. In a recent essay, Landsea and Cangialosi (2018), however, note a diminishing trend in the reduction of perceived positional error (PPE, difference between forecast and observed positions) in National Hurricane Center tropical cyclone (TC) forecasts as they contemplate whether “the approaching limit of predictability for tropical cyclone track prediction is near or has already been reached”.

In this study we consider a different interpretation of the PPE data. First, we note that PPE is different from true positional error (TPE, difference between forecast and true positions) as it is influenced by the error in the observed position of TCs. PPE is still customarily used as a proxy for TPE since the latter is not directly measurable. As an alternative, TPE is estimated here with an inverse method, using PPE measurements and a theoretically based assumption about the exponential growth of TPE as a function of lead time.

89% variance in the behavior of 36-120 hour lead time 2001-2017 seasonally averaged PPE measurements is explained with an error model using just four parameters. Assuming that the level of investments, and the pace of improvements to the observing, modeling, and data assimilation systems continue unabated, the 4-parameter error model indicates that the time limit of predictability at the 181 nm error level, reached at day 5 in 2017, may be extended beyond 6 / 8 days in 10 / 30 years’ time.

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