For the last decade, and since Hurricane Ike delivered a devastating storm surge into the greater Houston region, hurricane forecasters have wrung their hands about the efficacy of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Ike was designated a “Category 2” storm on the scale, which rates storms from 1 to 5. Categories 3, 4, and 5 are designated “major” hurricanes.
Because Ike was not a “major” hurricane, not everyone took the storm seriously. Eventually, after much debate, hurricane scientists decided that the Saffir-Simpson scale should only reference wind speed (and no longer storm surge), and that the National Hurricane Center would de-emphasize its use in its forecast products and instead focus on the threats posed by any given storm—be it damaging winds, storm surge, or inland flooding from heavy rainfall.
The Saffir-Simpson scale was retained, however, because most Americans were familiar with it, and it remained a useful tool to very generally identify the threat level of any given storm. This was a compromise. Issuing warnings for hurricanes is a messy business, not least because the forecasts can and often do change, and because emergency managers desire a simple and clear message they can deliver to residents and business owners.
Now, the situation is likely to become more confusing. At last week’s meeting of the American Meteorological Society, AccuWeather announced that it is implementing its own “RealImpact Scale for Hurricanes.” This scale will also go from 1 to 5, too, and according to the company, it will be “based on a broad range of important factors.” AccuWeather has declined to share the algorithm it will use to rank hurricanes.
“Unlike the very limited Saffir-Simpson scale, which accounts only for wind speed, the more comprehensive AccuWeather RealImpact Scale for Hurricanes properly informs people about the real impacts of a storm so they can utilize the most accurate information to make the best decisions to protect themselves, their families and property from all of the dangers and risks of tropical storms and hurricanes,” Joel N. Myers, founder and CEO of AccuWeather, said in a news release.
A charitable reading of this statement is that AccuWeather is seeking to innovate where the government has, over the last decade, decided to stand pat with the Saffir-Simpson scale. (There is little disagreement among meteorologists that the existing scale is flawed.) In creating its new hurricane scale, therefore, AccuWeather is simply trying to create a more holistic rating system that encompasses the myriad threats posed by a hurricane.
Reasons for concern
However, there are also some legitimate concerns. Foremost, the new scale introduces complexity and confusion into the system, as there are bound to be times when a hurricane has one rating on the Saffir-Simpson scale and another on AccuWeather’s scale, which will be used in hurricane and tropical storm news reports on AccuWeather.com and on the AccuWeather Network. Confusion is precisely what emergency managers hope to avoid in the frenetic run-up to a hurricane landfall.
There is also the question of hype. When inclement weather threatens, viewers flock to local television news and websites to find out the latest on the storm. (During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, my personal weather site for Houston eclipsed 1 million page views in a single day. A normal day sees about 10,000 views). The incentive in hurricane news coverage, therefore, is to hype the threat of a storm as it drives eyeballs and clicks. This may or may not affect AccuWeather’s scale, but without a publicly disclosed algorithm, it’is difficult to say for sure.
Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the potential political machinations behind the move. In 2005, then-Senator Rick Santorum, who represented Pennsylvania, the home state of AccuWeather, sponsored a bill that would have limited the ability of the National Weather Service and its National Hurricane Center division to communicate forecasts to the public. (The National Weather Service, in fact, does excellent work. Its forecasters are presently working during the government shutdown, without pay). This bill, which preposterously sought to limit public access to important weather information that taxpayers had paid for, was defeated.
But this has not stopped AccuWeather in its quest to reduce the ability of the National Weather Service to share weather forecasts in favor of private companies providing those services. It seems possible that the current scale was created as a private alternative to the Saffir-Simpson scale and to potentially edge it out.
And AccuWeather may yet succeed. The US Senate declined to move forward on President Trump’s nomination of Barry Myers to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the end of 2018. NOAA oversees the National Weather Service. Myers was a chief executive at AccuWeather (and is the brother of AccuWeather founder Joel Myers). However, in anticipation of being re-nominated to lead NOAA, Myers stepped down as officer and director of AccuWeather and its subsidiaries and affiliated companies, effective January 1, 2019, and sold all of his interest in these companies.
The stakes here are high. A recent short book by noted author Michael Lewis, , highlights the apparent goal here for the Myers family. Essentially, some private weather companies would like taxpayers to pay for NOAA to collect massive amounts of weather data and modeling and then for taxpayers to pay private companies to interpret it in the form of 10-day forecasts and such. This, perhaps, casts AccuWeather’s RealImpact scale in a somewhat darker light.