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NTSB urges better storm forecasts, timelier bulletins for mariners

Sep 29, 2017 10:34 AM
Hurricane Joaquin is shown at 0400 hours on Oct. 1, 2015, in this image from NOAA’s GOES West satellite. The NTSB has called on the forecasting agency to make hurricane updates more accessible to mariners.

Courtesy NASA/NOAA

Hurricane Joaquin is shown at 0400 hours on Oct. 1, 2015, in this image from NOAA’s GOES West satellite. The NTSB has called on the forecasting agency to make hurricane updates more accessible to mariners.

The ongoing inquiry into the El Faro disaster has spurred calls for more accurate hurricane forecasts and timelier dissemination of storm updates to mariners.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued 10 recommendations stemming from the El Faro investigation. Foremost is the request that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) develop better hurricane prediction models.

The NTSB also urged the National Weather Service to make more accessible the hurricane forecast updates issued between standard advisories. Currently, these “intermediate advisories” are not transmitted to certain satellite terminals — including the one aboard El Faro.

“Storm avoidance is a life-saving skill at sea,” NTSB Acting Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in a prepared statement. “And having frequent, up-to-date and reliable weather information is key to effective storm avoidance — and to saving lives.”

The NTSB expects to complete its investigation and release its findings into the El Faro accident later this year. The 790-foot ship sank Oct. 1, 2015, roughly 40 miles off the Bahamas. Twenty-eight U.S. mariners and five Polish technicians died.

El Faro, operated by a Tote Maritime subsidiary, left Jacksonville, Fla., for San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 2300 on Sept. 29, 2015. At about that time, the National Hurricane Center issued a forecast for Hurricane Joaquin suggesting that by Oct. 1, the slow-moving storm would be within 45 miles of San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.

The storm was 104 miles south of that position at 0800 on Oct. 1, roughly 20 minutes after El Faro sank, and its winds were 35 knots stronger than initially predicted. Early forecasts for Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Julia in 2016 and Tropical Storm Erika in 2015 also proved inaccurate, the NTSB report said.

NTSB officials called on NOAA to create a plan for improving modeling for storms such as Matthew and Erika with medium levels of wind shear, which can affect a storm’s direction and therefore its intensity. The NTSB also recommended that NOAA develop new technology to interpret storm data and make predictions.

NOAA spokesman Chris Vaccaro said the agency’s forecasts are based in part on human observation and satellite data fed into complex computer models. NOAA’s supercomputers can run 2.8 quadrillion calculations per second using billions of data points.

Through this technology and other changes, its forecasters have become adept at predicting storms with low and high levels of shear. Those in the middle are less predictable, and he acknowledged that NOAA has work to do.

“Cracking the mystery of the mid-shear environment continues to be a goal of ours,” he said in a recent interview. “That kind of goes in line with everything else we have been doing and continue to do to improve track forecasts and intensity forecasts.”

The NTSB also called for improvements in how storm forecasts are shared with mariners. The National Weather Center’s four daily storm advisories reached El Faro through an Inmarsat-C terminal on the bridge. However, the report shows this Sat-C system did not receive intermediate advisories sent between the four daily forecast advisories. Intermediate advisories show updated storm position, intensity and movement.

One intermediate forecast, sent at 0130 on Oct. 1, showed Joaquin moving away from its earlier projected track and toward the ship’s path, the NTSB said. Ten minutes before that intermediate advisory came out, El Faro’s captain declined a crewmember’s suggestion to change course. The advisory was not transmitted to El Faro’s bridge.

“This advisory would have identified to the crew that El Faro’s current course was taking them almost directly toward the center of the southwest-moving hurricane,” the NTSB said in the report.
The NTSB recommended that the National Weather Service develop ways to issue these advisories to Sat-C terminals, similar products on the market and new technology as it gets released.

In a prepared statement, TOTE said it would study the report closely. “Our goal throughout the process has been to learn everything possible about the tragic loss of our crew and vessel,” spokesman Michael Hanson said. “We welcome any safety-related recommendations from these investigations that benefit all seafarers.”

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