Irene helps UNC researchers hone forecasts

Hurricane forecasts soon may be more accurate than ever, thanks to UNC researchers.

While tracking Hurricane Irene, the scientists put years of computer model development to the ultimate test by forecasting the storm surge and inundation that would occur from North Carolina to New England.

“Predicting the future is a bit scary,” says Dr. Rick Luettich, “There is no opportunity to hedge. You put out your best results and then watch to see if nature follows course. Fortunately, every six hours brings the opportunity to try again with a new forecast.”

Luettich, Director of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, and Dr. Brian Blanton, Senior Scientist at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) are collaborating with Dr. Jason Fleming of Seahorse Coastal Consulting on improved ways to predict the effects of hurricanes.

Their work uses the ADvanced CIRCulation model (ADCIRC), a computer model substantially developed by Luettich’s UNC lab.

In the aftermath of Irene, Luettich’s team is investigating how accurately ADCIRC forecasting models performed in this ultimate test.

Applications of ADCIRC mainly have focused on replicating storms after they occur or on predicting the response to potential storms that may impact coastal regions in the future. Only rarely have researchers used ADCIRC to forecast actual storms as they occur, in large part because of the challenge of completing model runs and creating visual displays under tight time constraints to ensure that surge forecasts are released as close to the time of the actual hurricane forecast as possible.

Luettich’s team generated ADCIRC forecasts with the high-performance computing capabilities of RENCI, which displayed on the website As Hurricane Irene approached, results were used to assist with surge advisories made by weather forecast offices covering coastal North Carolina, by coastal NC emergency managers and by federal agencies, including the National Hurricane Center and the U.S. Coast Guard. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard moved its command center from Portsmouth, Va., to St. Louis, Mo., based on the predicted flooding in Portsmouth, which did occur.