Devised several decades ago, the idea behind this graphic was sound. Forecast uncertainty for hurricane tracks increases with time and that information needs to be communicated. The width of the cone in these graphics is based on historical track errors: two-thirds of historical official forecast errors over a 5-year sample fall within the width of the cone.
This approach may have been a reasonable thing to do twenty or thirty years ago, but it is NOT state of the science today because we have far more sophisticated tools to quantify and present the uncertainty of the track forecasts.
Uncertainty in hurricanes tracks vary by storm, location, date, forecast situation and forecast period. One size does not fit all. And we now have much more sophisticated capabilities that can produce relevant forecast track uncertainty that shows a very different structure than the simple cone method.
To put it another way, the cone approach is out-of-date and should be dropped for next hurricane season.
The key technology that has changed the story is ensemble prediction, whereby operational meteorological centers make many predictions during each forecast cycle, each forecast starting with a slightly different initial state or modestly different physics (e.g., how clouds form). Thus, we get an array of tracks that give us an idea of the potential routes of the storm. If the tracks are very different, than uncertainty is large.
Here is an example of the ensemble of forecast tracks of Superstorm Sandy from the NOAA/NWS GEFS ensemble system for runs starting at 1200 UTC 24 October 2012. You can see that the uncertainty was initially small (the ensembles were close together), but later they splayed out quite a bit, suggesting major uncertainty.. This does not look like a National Hurricane Center cone.
But let's examine at a very recent example, Hurricane Joaquin, back in September. You remember, the storm that was initially forecast to hit the East Coast, but went out to sea? The observed track (courtesy of the Weather Channel) is shown below.
On September 29th at 2 AM PDT, the storm cone track diagram showed the storm heading for the NY area, with the entire cone reaching the NE US. No possibility of a miss on the region!
At 11 PM PDT September 30th, the the threat was even worse, with the storm heading directly towards Washington DC (maybe that would been a good thing considering what is going on there these days). Somewhere along the central eastern seaboard would get it.
Let's compare this official cone track diagram to the ensembles initialized a few hours earlier at 5 PM PDT 30 Sept 2015. A very different story from the official cone track diagram. There is MUCH more uncertainty in the forecasts than suggested by the cone figure, with many of the forecast storms going out to sea. This was an extremely uncertain forecast, which was not communicated well by the cone figure.
By 5 PM PDT on October 1 the forecast tracks had shifted eastward, with the most probable track just offshore.
Unfortunately, the cone was not communicating the true uncertainty. As shown by the ensemble forecasts produced at 11 PM on October 1, there were a huge spread of possibilities, with some tracks going into the southeast U.S. and many heading out to sea. Very few were following the path of the cone.
And finally the National Hurricane Center cone for 2 PM on October 2 was taking the storm offshore, and that is what occurred (as shown by the track shown earlier). The ensembles had shown this possibility days before.
So what can we conclude from these examples? (and I could show you many, many more from this and other storms, including Superstorm Sandy in 2012)
1. The cone of uncertainty often does not encompass the true path of the storm. Thus, folks outside the boundaries of the cone may not be prepared.
2. The actual uncertainty is often larger than indicated by the cone, giving the population false confidence in the path of the storm.
3. We have substantial information from ensembles that can not be expressed by a cone, such as when they reveal two possible families of tracks for a storm (inland towards the U.S. or out to sea, as in Joaquin and Sandy).
4. The cone is based on the average errors over years. Ensemble tracks are appropriate for the specific storm and date in question.
In short, using track cones is out of date, technologically backward, and does not express the latest tools for calculating and displaying the uncertainties in hurricane tracks.
Track cones should be dropped by the National Hurricane Center and new approaches for displaying ensemble-based tracks should be developed. Here is one possibility.
Of course, there might be some folks that might be unhappy if we dropped the use of hurricane track cones...