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5 Ocean Weather Forecast Myths Debunked

Emily Heaslip

There’s an old sailor story with roots in the New Testament that goes,  “Red sky at night, sailors' delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” According to NOAA experts, it actually holds some water. A red sky would illuminate high-level clouds; and since the sun rises in the east, it would highlight an approaching weather system. A red sky at sunset would be the result of storm clouds moving off to the west. 

Ocean weather can be difficult to predict. Marine weather forecasting is complicated by lack of data, limited access to accurate ground truths, and reporting inconsistencies. For these reasons, myths and stories about the mechanisms of marine weather are common. While the red sky saying is true, most aren’t scientifically accurate, whatsoever. Dispelling these tall tales will reduce climate uncertainties in the future and enhance our understanding of the ocean right now.   

[Read more: Why Marine Weather Forecasts Are So Inaccurate - And How To Improve Them

Myth 1: Forecasts can predict weather weeks to months in advance

Longitudinal weather forecasts can make predictions that are pretty close to real conditions  but only for a week in advance. Modeling the increasingly disorganized and chaotic interactions that occur between the ocean and atmosphere in a changing climate becomes considerably less reliable as time goes on. 

“[In] most cases, determining when it will rain or snow more than seven to 10 days into the future, and sometimes fewer, is simply beyond the range of predictability,” explained The Washington Post. “And seasonal outlooks — such as whether it will be a cold, snowy winter — tend to be only marginally more accurate. Global weather patterns sometimes hint a few months in advance at how overall conditions will compare with average months. Often they don’t.” 

Real-time weather data is crucial to the shipping industry, especially considering the weather effects of climate change. With better weather routing, shipping companies can save fuel, improve safety, minimize delays, and generally operate more efficiently with fewer risks. 

Myth 2: Wind is the worst part of a hurricane

It may come as a surprise that coastal storm surge wreaks the most damage during a hurricane . Flooding from hurricanes and tropical cyclones accounts for nearly 90% of hurricane deaths  — and about half of those are caused by the storm surge. 

Before timely storm warnings, storm surges caused the greatest number of fatalities during these disasters Nowadays, advanced monitoring with ocean buoys now allows coastal communities to evacuate well before the storm hits. Water level pressure sensors offshore and along the coasts can be fed into  computerized numerical models to estimate storm surge heights. These models predict maximum possible impact, saving lives and protecting essential coastal infrastructure 

[Read more: What is a Storm Surge and What Causes It?

Myth 3: Computational weather predictions are always accurate 

Congress and NOAA are well aware that the organization’s forecasts aren’t consistently accurate. “As acting National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Neil Jacobs admitted, even after a recent upgrade, NOAA’s GFS still lags behind both the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the UK Met Office in forecast accuracy,” reported Observer in 2019. 

We can no longer solely rely on computational models of weather with climate change bringing extreme conditions and increasingly unpredictable storm seasons. Distributed sensor arrays offshore can reinforce these forecasts with live wave, wind, and temperature data for more targeted predictions in accurate locations. Sofar collects mesoscale ocean data at a planetary scale as one of the largest platform providers of marine sensing by density. Our network collects over 100K unique ocean data points daily, having recorded over 5 million hours to date. Weatherproof Spotter buoys have sat atop the waves for years around the world, amassing dense in-situ measurements to produce more informed forecasts today. Spotter buoys are durable and can deliver high-fidelity insights from anywhere in the ocean.. 

Myth 4: Tropical storms are less dangerous than hurricanes

The strongest tropical storm can reach wind speeds of up to 74 mph, whereas a Category 1 hurricane begins with wind speeds of 75 mph. Tropical storms also tend to result in heavy and sustained rainfall – again, contributing to flooding that can catch communities unaware. Tropical storms are dangerous: and the myth they aren’t serious can be dangerously misleading. 

Myth 5: If a circle forms around the moon, it will rain soon

Like the red sky saying, there’s some truth to this adage. There are two types of circles that can appear around the moon: coronas and halos. A corona looks like a “bull’s eye of diffuse colors” outlining a full or nearly full moon. Coronas appear when the clouds are thin enough to diffract light. 

Halos appear as a faint ring around the moon and are the result of refraction within hexagonally shaped ice crystals. Therefore, “a blanket of high cirrus clouds in the wintertime often heralds foul weather. That easily gives rise to a moon halo. Likewise, coronas are frequently the product of increasing low-level moisture, which usually precedes rain in the warmer months,” summarized the Washington Post

To learn more about marine weather forecasting, check out the Sofar Ocean blog.

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