Field of Inquiry
Hurricane predictor will update forecast Wednesday
ATMOSPHERIC SCIENTIST PHIL KLOTZBACH is in the business of forecasting hurricanes months in advance - which, he admits, cannot be done. "It's impossible to say, 'We're going to have 18 storms and nine hurricanes this year.' We can say it's going to be an active season and here's the science behind it."
Still, Klotzbach does try to predict the number of hurricanes in an upcoming tropical storm season (August through October). On Dec. 9, 2009, he released his first forecast for the current season, predicting an above-average year, with six to eight Atlantic hurricanes. Starting in August, Klotzbach, based at Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project, issues forecasts every two weeks; the next one is due Wednesday.
Klotzbach's mentor is William Gray, who has been studying hurricanes for more than 50 years and produced forecasts for 26. Gray - who has gotten attention lately for calling global warming a hoax - gave up his prognosticating duties at the Meteorology Project in 2006, making Klotzbach the country's leading hurricane forecaster at age 26.
We spoke to Klotzbach from his office in Fort Collins, Colo., about Hurricane Hunter flights, his famous boss and his impossible job.
- Rachel Saslow
Have you always been interested in hurricanes?
I was just a hard-core weather geek from a young age. I remember taking blank maps of the U.S. and drawing weather fronts on them.
I would say, with regard to hurricanes, I got interested in 1985. I was 5, and we had Hurricane Gloria go through close enough to Plymouth, Mass., to get some strong winds and heavy rain. I was interested in why and how it happened.
Your boss is a vocal global warming skeptic. Do you think it's a hoax, too?
I think it's a much more complicated question than that. Certainly, the climate has warmed over the last century. I think you can't attribute all of it to CO2; there are a lot of other factors involved as well. I wouldn't take the same position that he does, and I definitely wouldn't state it in the same way. His main focus in life is climate change, and mine is hurricanes.
Since you admit that it's impossible to predict the number of hurricanes in an upcoming season, why do you still do it?