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Hurricane forecasters and chasers are gearing up for the 2021 Atlantic season

Meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center are still working to compile data and write reports on the storms that spun up in the last season, but they are also turning their attention to making scientific and infrastructural improvements to streamline operations in the years ahead.

Eric Blake, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, was tasked with writing the reports for seven storms — the most he’s had to deal with. But that’s just a taste of what’s going on at the center. He’s been leading workshops with emergency managers and other core partners to strengthen ties leading up to the busy season.

“We usually host three weeks of in-person FEMA training for emergency managers,” said Blake, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “That’s been shortened to one week this year and changed to virtual.”

He is serving as an event program chair for the American Meteorological Society’s 34th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology, which will be held virtually this year between May 10 and May 14. It ends just one day before the National Hurricane Center plans to begin releasing regular tropical weather outlooks.

Blake will also be helping lead a forecasting workshop for meteorologists in the World Meteorological Organization’s Region 4, which includes North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

That’s all just the outreach side of the coin. The Hurricane Center has been working diligently to upgrade some of the scientific tools and knowledge at their disposal ahead of the approaching season.

“For SFMR, we’re changing the calibration curve,” said Blake. The SFMR, or Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer, is a device mounted on the underside of a Hurricane Hunter aircraft fuselage that emits signals that bounce off the surface of the stirred-up sea below.

Based on the signature of the returning signal, computer algorithms can get a sense of how rough are the seas below, from which wind speed can be derived. It’s not an exact science, and periodic fine-tuning to match observations is required to make sure it’s as accurate as possible.

“It’s been an ongoing issue the past couple of decades,” said Blake.

“The Hurricane Center is trying to undergo a big change from the national center AWIPs, to more the [local office] AWIPs 2,” said Blake — a jump between versions of an internal Weather Service computer program that could give the center better technological tools to streamline their workflow and communication.

“It’s specialized stuff, so that’s a long, multiyear process,” said Blake.

As meteorologists and forecasters prepare for another potentially busy season, hurricane chasers are hoping this year may afford opportunities that were squashed by the pandemic in 2020.

“In an ideal world, I don’t have an offseason,” said Josh Morgerman, star of BBC’s “Hurricane Man” docuseries. “I’d be chasing in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Because of travel restrictions stemming from the pandemic, however, he couldn’t. That might change this year.

“In a typical year, there’s no real [global] offseason,” said Morgerman, referring to the increase in Southern Hemisphere cyclones when the Atlantic and north Pacific begin to settle around December. He’s chased storms around the world. “There’s just a part that’s not as busy,” he said.

Some storm chasers target tornadoes, blizzards and wildfires when the Atlantic isn’t manufacturing tropical threats, but Morgerman is loyal to one breed of storms.

“I’m a very one-track dude,” he said. “I’m the hurricane guy, and that’s all I do.”

He said that making it as a television personality means always striving to build and advance a brand; that takes up most of his time in between storms.

“I’m trying to get lots of projects set up,” said Morgerman, “and speaking engagements seem to be returning now that we’re coming out of the pandemic.”

In past years, he’s delivered talks at the National Tropical Weather Conference on South Padre Island, the Coastal Bend Hurricane Conference and other academic settings, as well as for more niche groups such as insurance companies.

Like his counterparts on the forecasting side of things, Morgerman, along with many other chasers, are using the preseason planning period to take advantage of the latest technology available. He’s beta-testing barometers — devices that measure air pressure — to use when collecting data inside storms.

Last year, Morgerman chased half a dozen hurricanes, including two on the Yucatán Peninsula, but the majority made landfall at night. That made getting good pictures and videos an uphill battle.

“The big thing for me [in getting ready this season] is lighting solutions,” explained Morgerman. “It’s always been sort of accepted that you won’t see much with a landfall at night, but … some of the lighting technology [available now] is incredible. There are battery-powered lights that can [illuminate] a large outdoor area … enough to capture footage and see what is happening. Before to see, I was at the mercy of the time of day, or if I lost power, there goes footage.”

He’s also plotting a return from the West Coast to “Hurricane House” — a cottage in Bay St. Louis, Miss., that he turned into his home base last season. He rented it last year so he wouldn’t have to fly out from California during the pandemic and quickly fell in love with it.

“I became friends with the people across the street, and they posted a picture on Facebook of kids on the front lawn. … I could see [Hurricane House] in the background, and I saw some cars in the driveway, and I got this weird reaction,” he laughed. “There are other people renting it. It’s mine starting in June. I’ve blocked it off. Maybe I’ll have to buy it to keep it sacred.”

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