The Advent of Potential Tropical Cyclones – What, When and Why?

21 06 2017

Dale C. S. Destin |

History was made this past Sunday when for the first time ever the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) issued tropical storm (TS) warnings for portions of the southern Caribbean, in the absence of a TS. This they were able to do by designating an approaching tropical disturbance a “potential tropical cyclone” (PTC).

PTC_Bret

In the past, it was the policy of the NHC to not issue tropical cyclone (the generic term for tropical depressions, TSs and hurricanes) watches and warnings UNLESS there EXISTS a threatening tropical cyclone (TC). This was the case even if there was a 100% certainty that one was going to form and impact land in a short space of time.

This policy served us well. However, just about every year, there would be, at least, that one tropical disturbance that would approach land, and everybody knew it was going to form into a TC just before impact. But the existing policy would get in the way of issuing watches and warnings that were needed to sprung persons into meaningful preparations.

A classic example of this was Hurricane Tomas of 2010. The system approach the southern Caribbean in late October and was not upgraded to a TS until it was less than 12 hours away from Barbados.

TOMASAsTropDisturbance2010

Tomas as a potential tropical cyclone on the “doorsteps” of Barbados, less than 9 hours before impact, with no warning issued

So instead of having 36-48 hours lead time to prepare, there was less than 9 hours. The bulletin announcing the warnings not only came late but also late in the day – 5 pm, which means any preparations that could be done, took place mainly after-dark, after it started to rain and after hardware stores were closed.

Tomas cause eight deaths and over US$500 million dollars in damage across the southern Caribbean. Some of the loss could have been avoided if many persons were not caught off guard due to the very short lead time between the formation of Tomas and its impact on the islands.

Hurricane Gonzalo of 2014 similarly caught many Antiguans off guard and unprepared. Many persons did not hear about the system until hours before it arrived. One person told me that she suffered damage to her property because she only found out what was happening when the winds started to pick up. By then, it was to late for her to go outside to close the shutters. Many boats were damage or sunk because of insufficient time to secure them.

Gonzalo_AsAPotentialTropCyclone

Gonzalo as a potential tropical cyclone less than 20 hours before it made landfall in Antigua as a hurricane with no warning issued

To solve this problem, the NHC has revised its policy and instead of just issuing watches and warnings for ONLY existing TCs, they have started this year to issue them for “PTCs”. By definition, according to NHC, a PTC is: ”…a disturbance that is not yet a TC, but which poses the threat of bringing TS or hurricane conditions to land areas within 48 hours.”

So, no longer is a disturbance, with a high chance of becoming a TC, allowed to march up to a country without 24-48 hours of watches and warnings being issued. Such systems can now be declared PTCs and the requisite watches and warnings will be issued, early.

It could be argued that an approaching tropical disturbance with a high chance of becoming a TC should be enough to spring persons into TS or hurricane preparations. However, studies have shown, a great number of persons just don’t prepare until watches or warnings are issued. Hence, the need for them to be issued early.

This policy change may be one of the most important ever by the NHC. Like the previous policy though, this one is not perfect; however, it plugs a huge loophole in the TC warning system. It has the distinct potential benefit of further reducing “surprised” attacks from TC, which translate into saving more lives, more properties and livelihoods.

Notwithstanding, it has the potential to create some unnecessary stress. This will be so when disturbances designated PTCs do not actually become cyclones. I expect, this be a rare occurrence. In any event, preparations for PTCs are deemed low-regret actions at worse.

Happily, we are off to a good start. The historic first PTC became TS Bret less than 6 hours before making landfall in Trinidad. Under the old policy, many persons would have been caught off guard and unprepared, not so this time around.

EarlAsATropDisturbanceAugust2016

Earl as a potential tropical cyclone forecast to be near or over Jamaica in a day or two with no watch or warning issued

This new policy may have been hastened into being by the actions of the Jamaica Meteorological Service (JMS) last year, as it related to TS Earl. Whereas the NHC made history by issuing its first TC warnings based on a PTC, they were not the first to do so. The JMS, quite bravely, “took the bull by the horn” and made the tough, unprecedented but right decision to issue TS warnings for Jamaica in the face of TS Earl of 2016, when it was what we are now calling a PTC, approaching the island.

So, well done to Jamaica for setting the stage for the first ever PTC bulletin by NHC – both are a success stories – mission accomplished, congratulations!

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