Be Careful of What You Wish For…

Falk Niehoerster, science programme manager of the Risk Prediction Initiative (RPI) at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science (BIOS) is a hurricane expert who has never actually lived through such a storm.

He’s never felt the pain of having his gas cylinders blow away, never fought an old lady for the last pack of double D batteries, never cursed himself for panic-buying 20 tins of something he will never eat.

He can be forgiven for his lack of hurricane street credits as he is originally from Westphalia, Germany, where there are no hurricanes. Dr Niehoerster is a mathematician and climate modeller who looks at future hurricane risk.

His research is into hurricane activity over a period of several years. He took up his post at BIOS in July.

“I have never been in a hurricane,” he said. “When I moved here, I thought maybe it was time after all this research to actually be in one. My colleagues say, ‘better be careful what you wish for. It can be scary and annoying because power will go off and you won’t be able to work’.”

He is a mathematician by training, and did his PhD in climate modelling.

Before coming to Bermuda he worked at the London School of Economics in London, England. It was while there that he became interested in hurricanes and the link between science and decision making.

“Hurricanes have that immense impact on society and loss of life,” said Dr Niehoerster. “There is also an impact from damage to property.

“A lot of decisions have to be made based on what scientists can say about future hurricane activity.”

Every January, various organisations make predications about how many named storms there will in the coming hurricane season.

Dr Niehoerster said there is some “uncertainty” around predictions like this, but they are improving.

“It all depends on when the forecast is made,” said Dr Niehoerster. “The closer to hurricane season, the forecast gets better but for many businesses and policymakers who need to prepare, quite often it is necessary to know a season ahead. That is more difficult.”

He said that El Niño is a factor. The phenomenon is defined as warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean that impact global weather patterns.

“There are many different natural modes in the atmosphere that control how many hurricanes we will have and their intensity.

“The El Niño phenomenon is one of the factors. There are many contributors. Also the temperature of the surface as well as the upper layer of the Atlantic is thought to be very important.

“Also, there are some other modes, not really local but more in the North Atlantic, that impact the hurricane season.

These large scale phenomenon are still not predictable on a timescale that we would like them to be but we are getting better.”

He said it was hard to say if there were more hurricanes in the Atlantic now, than there were in the past.

“If you look at the numbers it is hard to detect a trend,” he said. “There are active periods and inactive periods.

“One area where there seems to be a trend is in the intensity of hurricanes. They might be getting stronger.

“Some parts of this might be due to climate change. The frequency of hurricanes is a different thing.

“It is hard to say something about the frequency. I believe that in the last five or six years, scientists have indications that climate change might be having an impact on hurricane intensity in a positive way, meaning making them stronger.”

The RPI works closely with the insurance industry in Bermuda, England, the United States and other countries. RPI also look at other weather phenomenon that impact the United States and Europe such as tornadoes and winter storms.

“They are different but similar problems in terms of predictability, and the ability to cause huge damage to society,” said Dr Niehoerster. “We are trying to stimulate science where it is needed, and trying to bring industry and science together.

“In the past, RPI has funded various research projects around hurricanes. Paleotempestology is funded by RPI.

“This is the science of reconstructing hurricane activity in the past by analysing sediments. Projects like this helped to establish more robust science.”

Dr Niehoerster, and Mark Guishard, director of the Bermuda Weather Service will be answering questions from the public at BIOS’ Marine Science Day on Saturday.

“Many other BIOS scientists will also be on hand to answer questions about their area of expertise. If you’ve ever wanted to interrogate a scientist, this is your chance.

Activities will also include arts and crafts for children, a puppet show and wacky science experiments.