Deadly Denials of Reality: A Hurricane Story from Abroad

Is this a hurricane?

South Atlantic Hurricane 'Catarina'

Of course. It only looks a little “odd” because it’s a clockwise turning storm — as all southern hemispheric hurricanes are. What’s most odd is that the landmass to its left (west) isn’t Australia or southern Africa, where tropical cyclones are well known, but instead Brazil!

At the time of its occurrence in March 2004, this storm (later dubbed Catarina by several Brazilian tropical enthusiasts) was the first hurricane documented in the Atlantic south of the Equator, and only the second tropical cyclone of any sort known in the South Atlantic. [In April 1991, while at the National Hurricane Center, I classified and informally documented a strong tropical depression or weak tropical storm south of the bulge of Africa — and south of the Equator.]

Hurricane “Catarina” formed from an extratropical or subtropical low but acquired obvious warm core characteristics, deep convection completely surrounding an eye with spiral bands and upper level outflow, over sea surface temperatures measured by satellite at around 26 deg C (a loose minimum threshold for tropical development). This shot from the International Space Station — taken from the south at an oblique angle — spectacularly depicts the storm in an unusual three dimensional appearance. Check out the upward tilted, radial, feathery cirrus extensions of the upper level outflow, around the storm’s edges, and the view straight at the north eyewall.

South Atlantic Hurricane 'Catarina' from ISS Vantage

None of the above is news, but instead background material.

What is news, controversial to boot, is that the Brazilian meteorological service denied that this was a hurricane during the several days of its maturity, right through landfall. The impact: winds estimated up to 180 km/h, 1500 homes destroyed, 40,000 more homes damaged, and over $350 million in damage in US dollars. Brazil counted three fatalities, while seven people remain missing over a year later.

Here is an excerpt from a Reuters story on the event:

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, March 27 (Reuters) – Brazil’s official weather service on Saturday said a cyclone with strong winds and rain was approaching its southern area, but denied it was a hurricane as U.S. meteorologists said earlier. “Brazil has never had hurricanes and it is not having one now,” said Kelen Andrade, a meteorologist with the state Weather Forecasting and Climatic Studies Centre (CPTEC). On Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Centre in Miami said the first hurricane ever was forming in the south Atlantic off the coast of Brazil, classifying it as a Category 1 hurricane — the least powerful on forecasters’ five-level scale. But Andrade said that while satellite images could have suggested a hurricane, more detailed studies showed a different weather pattern. The main difference, she said, is that the eye of a hurricane is hot, while the centre of an extratropical cyclone, that forms above colder waters, is cold. “And the speed of the winds that cyclones bring is about twice as low, so we don’t expect anything catastrophic, although strong rains and winds may affect Santa Catarina state. The cyclone has reached the land already,” she said.

Because hurricanes are so rare in the South Atlantic, there is no specific center that is officially responsible for that area. Still, the National Hurricane Center took the initiative not only to classify the system, but to call Brazilian meteorologists and inform them of their observations and concerns. The denials continued from Brazil. An NHC forecaster also spoke with radio meteorologists there, who warned listeners to prepare for a real hurricane. So did meteorologists with Climaterra Institutes of Santa Catarina and of Santa Catarina University. But a different (and the largest) radio station in the area failed to acknowledge the event as such, and official denials continued as well. “Brazil has never had hurricanes and is not having one now.” Say WHAT???

Well, guess what. They did. And we knew it at the time.

The evidence was overwhelming, the destruction would become plainly evident. Finally, 13 months after the Brazilian hurricane of 2004, officials there convened a conference and plenary discussion, including NHC forecaster Jack Beven and NCAR researcher Greg Holland. Kudos to Jack and Greg for taking the trouble to attend and helping to set the record straight.

Still, it was a good deal of time and effort and airfare spent to ascertain the obvious: Catarina was a hurricane. Linked here is the English language summary of the conference.

It appears the Brazilians have learned a valuable lesson, over a year too late; but I must give them credit for admitting the mistake and publicly posting the results of the conference. If this can bring about meaningful advancement of weather services in a major developing nation — one so enormous in land area, populous, beautiful and economically important as Brazil — I’m all for it.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t change the fact that, in the 21st century, deadly denials of indisputable reality can happen on an official scale, even when the rest of the (meteorological) world knows better. Sure, we’ve got a lot of problems in U.S. public and private meteorological services that need repair, but we still have the best there is (NHC’s absolutely outstanding forecasts for Katrina’s Gulf landfall being a splendid example).

Thanks to NASA, Phil Smith, Jack Beven and folks at Brazil’s Climatologia Urbana Weather Center for helpful imagery and information.


One Response to “Deadly Denials of Reality: A Hurricane Story from Abroad”

  1. tornado on October 11th, 2005 6:03 am

    The good folks of the Climatologia Urbana Weather Center (Brazil) passed along this link to a new paper in Geophys. Res. Lett. regarding Catarina — one likely to be the definitive initial reference for a long time to come.

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