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Saharan Sand & Hurricane Prediction


I have written before about modeling earthquakes and hurricanes - two phenomena are often not covered in homeowners insurance because they are Acts of God. There is still a long way to go before these are understood to the satisfaction of a predominance of scientists.

But what about prediction? With hurricane season about to start in earnest in the Atlantic, it has been pretty quiet. How are hurricanes predicted, and how good are these predictions?

El Niño events and hurricanes are highly correlated, and hence the Niño is part of every hurricane forecasters toolkit/ There has been a lot of publicity of late indicating a strong correlation between Saharan sand storms and hurricane activity, suggesting that sand activity would complement El Nino as a predictor.

While no one would dispute the value of another correlate for hurricane activity, I did notice the typical media confusion between understanding what was going on, and what was purely a prediction based on a correlation. I was just about to write one of my typical rants when I came across a blog that already took the media to task back in 2006. Written by Daniel Collins from UW-Madison on his Down To Earth blog, the post title says it all: Bad Science Journalism: Linking Hurricanes and Dust

UW-Madison is where a lot of resarch is carried out. Their press release is quoted by Collins. I include the passage most salient to the discussion here about understanding vs. prediction:

While the UW-Madison work doesn't confirm that dust storms directly influence hurricanes, it does provide compelling evidence that the two phenomena are linked in some way. "What we don't know is whether the dust affects the hurricanes directly, or whether both [dust and hurricanes] are responding to the same large scale atmospheric changes around the tropical Atlantic," says Foley. "That's what future research needs to find out."

On a recent family vacation to Florida we were talking with a real estate agent about hurricanes in that area (northeast Florida) and he described a relationship between distance from the Gulf Stream and hurricane frequency and ferocity. While this sounds plausible - i.e. that there is a correlation, I need to see much more data before I would do anything hasty - such as making a large-scale real estate investment!

(The beautiful sandstorm picture is from the Abrangente blog. It reminds me very much of a scene from Bertolucci’s 1990 version of The Sheltering Sky.)