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‘Need to get this right:’ Better storm tracking technology needed after Fiona, says expert

As the world warms, experts say there will be more extreme weather as a result, and while the ability to track a storm’s path has improved significantly over the years, being able to predict its intensity remains a difficult task.

Part of that challenge is because there are not a lot of observations from inside the storm — but that’s where unmanned vessels come into play.

Remarkable video from the centre of hurricane Fiona was captured by an autonomous ship owned by Saildrone, a U.S.-based company that builds wind and solar-powered unmanned surface vessels that are used to collect data about the world’s oceans.

“We’re really excited to be able to have Saildrones to be able to survive these conditions so that we can get this data to improve those predictions, because understanding if it’s going to be a tropical depression or peter out or become a strong hurricane can really affect humans,” said Saildrone’s VP of product Kim Sparling from her office in San Francisco, Calif.

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It’s this kind of technology that Anya Waite, the scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute, said is critical in preparing for future storms. While knowing a storm’s track is important, she said, understanding its strength is the “single biggest thing that we care about as humans.”

“Both underpredicting and overpredicting carry a huge cost to society and we need to get this right,” said Waite.

She said not getting it right could lead to infrastructure damage from unprepared coastal cities, but also costs associated with unnecessary evacuations.

“The important thing is that accuracy really needs to be improved and the only way to get better accuracy is better measurements of the ocean.”

Fiona’s damage highlights consequences of climate change

This is especially critical as the intensity, frequency and longevity of storms increase, said Waite.

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“There are some indications that we may move to the next scale of cyclone — that is a Category 6 cyclone that’s never been seen before. If that does happen, we’re talking about winds that could literally peel the bark off trees,” she said.

Blair Greenan is a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. His work focuses on climate change and how human greenhouse gas emissions are impacting the ocean.

While he said he’s not confident saying hurricanes will become more common or more intense for Nova Scotia, he said a warmer planet will create global sea level rise, which will impact a storm’s impact on land.

“If you think 50 years from now, if Fiona were to come through again — a storm of that magnitude — and sea level was 30 or 50 centimetres higher than it was today, then you’re going to have a lot more destruction and a lot more coastal inundation and flooding,” said Greenan.

He said Canada is part of an international program that has 4,000 autonomous robots in the ocean. Those robots are collecting temperature and salinity data that is used in Environment and Climate Change Canada’s forecasting systems.

Read more: Faster adaptation to climate change will save Canada billions, analysis finds

“And that’s really improving the weather forecasts, because it has real-time data from the ocean to incorporate into the initiation of the models,” Greenan said.

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He said leading up to Fiona’s landfall, Canadian forecasts were quite accurate, even multiple days out, and that’s in large part thanks to the tools already being used.

He said it’s important that Canada continues supporting those resources into the future and enhancing them, so scientists can continue to provide advice on how climate change is impacting the region.

While ocean observation is not easy or cheap work, Waite said it’s something we can’t afford not to invest in.

“That’s actually a small cost compared to the trillion dollars of climate impacts that we’re going to have going forward from hurricanes and other extreme events,” she said.

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