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Know the Hurricane Cone- What it Really Means

Updated on September 14, 2014

The NHC Calls it the Cone of UN-Certainty

You should know what the hurricane cone, or "Cone of Uncertainty," as the National Hurricane Center sometimes calls it, means if you live where you live in hurricane country. You'd be surprised how many people don't!

I can't count the number of times I've heard someone say, "We're not in the cone, so we're safe." Oh really??? Soeone making such a statement does NOT understand what this part of the hurricane forecast tells us at all.

If your area is not in the cone, you can still be affected by a tropical weather system.

Let's have a look at what the cone really DOES mean, and how you should use it to know when to be prepared for hurricane season, and a possible assult by severe tropical weather.

Image Credit

It's called the "Cone of Uncertainty."

There is hardly ever 100% certainty

about where the center will go.

NOTE

Important Note

This is not an official weather site. I am not a meteorologist. My family has lived in 'hurricane country' for over a century. It's been our natural inclination to educate ourselves on tropical weather threats. This page is intended to encourage others to do the same.

Waves generatey by Hurricane Ivan
Waves generatey by Hurricane Ivan | Source

They Call It the Cone of Uncertainty


"Have you put up your hurricane shutters yet?"

"Oh, no. We're not even in the cone. The edge of the cone is a good 50 or 75 miles from us."

That's part of an actual conversation I had once with a Florida resident when a hurricane was approaching.

Really??? REALLY!

He obviously thought the Cone of Uncertainty was inappropriately titled - that if he wasn't in the cone, the storm CERTAINLY wasn't coming his way. YIKES!

First of all, the NHC didn't misname the cone. it's called the Cone of UNcertainty for a reason. It's continually adjusted as the storm moves, and even the experts at the NHC don't know with absolutely certainty which way it will move next. The only certainty is that it bears watching.

And Secondly... well, read on for more about what the Cone of Uncertainty really indicates.

Do You Have a NOAA Weather Radio? - We consider our Weather Band Radio Indespensible in a Weather Emergency

A NOAA Weather Band Radio isn't just any old radio. It's specifically made for emergencies, and picks up a special signal from the National Weather Service that normal radios do not. It can be set to wake you with an alarm when the NWS declares an emergency alert.

If you live in hurricane (or tornado) country, an emergency weather band radio is not a luxury, it's a necessity.

MIDLAND WR300 Weather Radio
MIDLAND WR300 Weather Radio

We have a Midland NOAA Radio and have been very satisified with it.

I can recomment this brand from personal experience.

 
The eye is that small dark spot in the middle of the big swirl
The eye is that small dark spot in the middle of the big swirl | Source

The Cone Forecasts the Path of the CENTER of the Storm

The cone shows the possible path of the center of the Tropical Weather System

Tropical systems have a defined center, which is called an "eye" when certain criteria are met.

In this picture, you can see the small center. It appears almost like a little dip or hole in the middle of the big swirl that is the storm. The forecast path shows where THAT little part of the storm might go. Tha's what is shown by the cone. NOT areas that might be affected by the whole storm.

The width of the cone includes a built in margin of error. And, centers are wont to "wobble." The actual center is forecast to move forward within the cone. It could go right down the middle, or ride one side.

See how big the rest of the storm is in comparison to the small center? That's typical, by the way!

See the example of Hurricane Irene, below

The Cone vs. The Storm

Irene: Track vs. IR Image, adapted from from NHS Archives, pd
Irene: Track vs. IR Image, adapted from from NHS Archives, pd

Example: Irene of Hurricane Season 2011


LEFT IMAGE- The state of South Carolina is basically OUT of the cone drawn on 8/25, with the track showing the hurricane will be off shore on the 27th..

RIGHT IMAGE- Nearly the entire state IS receiving severe weather on the 27th, as seen on this IR satellite image.

Was the 'cone' wrong? No. The cone was right.

You can plainly see the center of the storm well off shore, as the cone indicated it would be. That's what the cone is all about - the center. The storm is simply BIGGER than that center point:

That morning, a hurricane hunter aircraft flew into the eye of the storm, and reported that:

- Hurricane force winds exended out 90 miles from the center

- Tropical Storm force winds extended out 290 miles from the center.

That's a potential 580 mile over-all width! (assuming symmetry)

At that point, the 'cone' was perhaps 160 miles wide off South Carolina's coast, by my (very) rough estimate.

The cone is wider at five days than at two, since the margin of error increases with time

Irene Wind Probabilities chart on August 25
Irene Wind Probabilities chart on August 25 | Source

The Tropical Wind Probabilities Chart

This Chart is another useful tool from the National Hurricane Center. I use it a lot.

I like to consult this graphic when there is an active storm. It's called a Wind Speed Probabilities chart, and it can be animated.

There's a wind speed chart for 34 kt, 50kt, and 64 kt, with color coded percentage areas.

They are available on the National Hurricane Center site whenever a tropical cyclone is active. (The designation of tropical cyclone includes everything from tropical depressions to category 5 hurricanes.)

Do you see how this graphic might be less open to misinterpretation than the one called the Cone of Uncertainty?

Be Sure Your Hurricane Supplies are Ready!

Get ready ahead of time.

When a storm is heading full bore for your home is not the time to start thinking about getting ready. That's best done when there isn't even a hint of anything tropical heading your way.

Rayovac SE3DLNACOM Sportsman 240 Lumen 3D LED Lantern, Green
Rayovac SE3DLNACOM Sportsman 240 Lumen 3D LED Lantern, Green

Please don't think it's a good idea to have a candle or two stashed away for emergency lighting. They don't gift off a lot of light, and flames are subject to being blown out... or worse!

 

A storm's forecast path and cone can change from advisory to advisory as new data comes available.

The Forecast for a Hurricane or Tropical Storm can Change

Hurricane Irene Cone on two different days
Hurricane Irene Cone on two different days | Source

The Cone of Uncertainty Can and Probably Will Shift

By way of illustration of how drastically the cone of uncertainty can change over a short period of time, here, again is an example from Hurricane Irene of the 2011 Hurricane Season.

LEFT IMAGE: The cone on the morning of 08/22/11 has the hurricane projected to make landfall very near my home on Florida's east coast in a matter of days. Note that almost all of Florida, about half of the state of Georgia, and a little corner of Alabama, are all in the five day cone.

RIGHT IMAGE: A day later. The states of Florida and Georgia are completely out of the cone.

As it ended up, Irene passed by our coast with the center about 225 miles out to sea. We got some very squally weather and pretty rough surf, producing some beach erosion.

Product Reviews

of Helpful Hurricane Season Supplies

The following are links to product reviews of several things that I own. You might find some of them useful during hurricane seaon, either for your emergency kit, or just to have on hand.


Battery Organizer and Tester - Review
This simple, inexpensive battery organizer case with a tester is one of the best purchases I ever made! Like many people who live on the coast, I have a who...

Weather Alert Radio
Floods, severe thunder storms, tropical storms, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes. Some disasters strike with little warning, while with others, you may know ...

Freeze Dried Fruit - A Good Sugar Free Snack
This week, we discovered Brothers All Natural Fruit Crisps - a healthy freeze dried snack food with no sugar added. It's our first experience with freeze dri...

Back in the Cone Again - by Rodney Hotrod Parker

Here's an entertaining little song about the hurricane cone.

The Hurricane Song

Get The Hurricane Song

Did you play the above video? Did you like it? .

Back in the Cone (The Hurricane Song)
Back in the Cone (The Hurricane Song)

You can own it now! Just download it from Amazon

 

Monitor approaching hurricanes.

They can make unexpected turns,

like Charley did in 2005!

Out of the Cone but NOT Out of the Woods

it's amazing that so many people - even those who live in hurricane country - tend to misinterpret the National Hurricane Center's Cone of Uncertainty to mean the path of the entire storm.

Many of them seen to think that if they are "out of the cone" there is no need to make any preparations at all, because out of the cone means "out of the woods." (That's simply not true.)

Even if it looks like there is a lot of real estate between you and the nearest edge of the cone, it doesn't mean you can forget about it. Tropical cyclones can and do change directions. Sometimes those turns are accurately predicted. Other times, not so much.

People on Florida's southwest coast laerned that in 2005. Hurricane Charley was to their southwest. He had been moving northwest, and still was at 7:00 am on August 13. Within a couple of hours, he was heading north, and by 1:00 pm, he had turned northeast. An hour later, he had strengthened to a dangerous Category 4. Shortly after that, he made landfall at Port Charlotte, Florida.

It was a devastating hit, and quite a few people were unprepared.


Neiko 40440 LED Flashlights with Ultra Bright 9 LEDs and Heavy Duty Aluminum Body | 3-Pack
Neiko 40440 LED Flashlights with Ultra Bright 9 LEDs and Heavy Duty Aluminum Body | 3-Pack

We keep flashlights within easy reach in every room of the house during hurricane season.

 
Grizzly Tarps 14 x 30 Feet Blue Multi Purpose Waterproof Poly Tarp Cover 5 Mil Thick 8 x 8 Weave
Grizzly Tarps 14 x 30 Feet Blue Multi Purpose Waterproof Poly Tarp Cover 5 Mil Thick 8 x 8 Weave

It's a good idea to have a couple of roof tarps on hand, so that you can protect your home and contents from further damage right away after a storm takes part of your roof

 

Damabe from Hurricane Charley

Damage from Hurricane Charley was severe.  There were 32 deaths, and over 700 injuries attributed to the category 4 Hurricane.
Damage from Hurricane Charley was severe. There were 32 deaths, and over 700 injuries attributed to the category 4 Hurricane. | Source

Did you learn something new from this page?

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REMEMBER:

If you are outside the cone,

you are NOT necessarily

out of danger!

What did you think?

Well, if you don't have any thoughts on tropical cyclone forecasting, please at least say hello!

The Guestbook Is: OPEN

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    • BrendanRichardson profile image

      BrendanRichardson 3 years ago

      I think you are very well informed for not being in the weather business! What I find so remarkable about the National Hurricane Center's Cone of Uncertainty is how the size of it has been shrinking overtime. If you compare similar Tropical cyclones from just over 10 years ago, improvements in the size of the cone are clear. This is a well written lens!

    • Mel Otero profile image

      Mel Otero 3 years ago

      I live in Sugar Land, Texas and heard this week that 2013 has been predicted to have "extreme hurricane activity" - let's hope not!!

    • profile image

      EmergencyPrepar 4 years ago

      We've only lived in southwest Florida for 2 years so we haven't had experience with a hurricane yet. I hope we never do. We are prepared the best we can be besides still having to get a generator though.

    • profile image

      nealberk 4 years ago

      The NOAA weather radios are also very valuable if you live in tornado country. They are an excellent way of getting information and warning of all weather related issues not just hurricanes.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      You are so very knowledgable on such a wide range of topics. I had no idea that a hurricane had a cone or a center hole. Gosh I would be in trouble if I ever run into one.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 4 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      I lived in Hurricane country twice... and two weeks ago moved back into it (am now 5 miles from the Atlantic Ocean along the Georgia coast), so, yep, I'm well aware of the Hurricane Cone and it's uncertainty and follow all storm threats seriously. :) Good review for those who 'think' they are safe! Better safe, than sorry, as they say....

    • profile image

      DaydreamEducation 4 years ago

      informative article!

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 4 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      Very good info. I'm glad I don't live in Hurricane country.

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 4 years ago

      Great info! Thanks for sharing.

    • CruiseReady profile image
      Author

      CruiseReady 4 years ago from East Central Florida

      @Blackspaniel1: Even then, the cone only represents the track of the center, not the size of the storm, which could be easly several hundred miles larger than the cone...

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      You have it well covered here!

    • profile image

      boutiqueshops 4 years ago

      Quite well acquainted with the cone, thank you very much. South Texas Gulf Coast; Corpus Christi was leveled by Hurricane Celia in the 70's. We pay close attention. ;-)

    • KellydeBorda profile image

      KellydeBorda 4 years ago

      I'm from Florida, and well aware of what's going on with the cone! Another thing to keep in mind is that different computer projections draw the cone differently - and the direction of the cone can and often does change as the storm gets closer. Talking about hurricanes makes me homesick!

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 4 years ago

      Never even had the cone of uncertainty on my radar. Now I'm certain I know about it. I know that every once in a great while, Pennsylvania, where I live, gets walloped!

    • jolou profile image

      jolou 4 years ago

      This is sure good information to have. It's surprising that even people that live in hurricane zones don't always understand the dangers. Well done.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 4 years ago

      Our television meteorologists have shown model tracks, and we await track convergence to feel safer. Then the cone is better defined.

    • CruiseReady profile image
      Author

      CruiseReady 4 years ago from East Central Florida

      @anonymous: Yes, they are. They are serious business. We don't live on the coast - but just OFF the coast, on a barrier island, so evacuation is frequently in the cards for us.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Terrific lens. I lived on Florida's gulf coast for four years and the South Carolina coast for two years. When I heard the word "hurricane" on the news, I evacuated. I didn't try to guess or interpret where in the cone we were. Hurricanes are deadly serious.

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