Hurricane maps are a man-made disaster

A giant jellyfish is attacking the Gulf Coast with its lurid appendages. 

Timely as Hurricane Dorian churns away in The Atlantic: hurricane maps are just terrible. Yes, if you learn how they work, they provider useful information, but most people don’t know how they work, and they are plastered all over the place when a hurricane is approaching.

So for the last several days I’ve been looking at this (since I have an elderly parent in South Florida) and here’s what is totally clear when the Weather Channel is showing these things 24×7 complete with predictions of an apocalypse:

  • They show the center line of the forecast track, which is of course an average of a lot of maybes, and people say “It’s heading for us right now!” Yeah, maybe, maybe not. It’s human nature to think of a hurricane as an object steering down a course, but it’s not really. Or if it is, we don’t actually know what the course is, and the course is changing every hour based on atmospheric conditions. People don’t see the line without the cone as something probabilistic.
  • Even with the cone, it confuses people. They’re unclear what it means that they are in the cone. Or out of the cone, where the weather can still be pretty nasty.
  • Then they show the “spaghetti maps,” and people just throw their hands up and go buy more bread.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but this isn’t it. The current visualizations are probably useful to a set of people who understand them – for whom they have been designed – but for the general public, they are not working.

Also, turn off the Weather Channel.


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