Members of the North Carolina National Guard in Windsor, N.C. after Hurricane Isaias.
Photo courtesy the North Carolina National Guard.
There are times when you really want to know the distance from here to there. One of those times might be when you are staying on a beach and a tropical cyclone is on its way to your neighborhood.
Pilots and mariners are accustomed to working with latitude and longitude coordinates. So are meteorologists, and so is the subset of the population that enjoys the pastime of geocaching. The rest of us, not so much. But sometimes it is helpful to know exactly where “here” is, so you can accurately measure the distance to “there.”
A lot of people on the East Coast took an interest in accurate measurement this week as Hurricane-Tropical Storm-Hurricane Again-Tropical Storm Again Isaias made its way to Florida and then more or less followed the coastline northward to New England. In northern Florida, where I am staying, Isaias proved to be just a practice run at hurricane preparedness – and we get plenty of practice here anyway. We saw only some squalls and a few moderately strong gusts of wind, along with some entertaining offshore rainbows in the evening and lightning storms at night. In the tropical islands to our south and on the mainland to our north, where Isaisas made landfall in the Carolinas Monday night as a hurricane, the impacts were much more severe.
But we Floridians did not know during the weekend whether Isaias would tear its way up the beach, pass harmlessly well offshore, or stay over the water but close and strong enough to do serious damage, as Matthew did in 2016. Hurricane forecasting, while science-driven, is still not exact. That is why meteorologists project hurricane tracks within a “cone of uncertainty” that gets wider further out in time. Since storm impacts can occur far from the center, forecasters warn citizens not to focus too closely on the storm’s exact track anyway.
But the path still matters. The closer you are to water, the more important it becomes. Matthew, an extremely powerful storm that traveled offshore but close to the coast, caused a storm surge that devastated my beach community. The following year, Irma took an inland track. Its wind did more structural damage than Matthew, but its storm surges in my corner of Florida were far less significant. As I recently wrote, most hurricane casualties result from water, not wind.
So on Saturday, I sandbagged my back door facing the ocean in case storm-driven waves overtopped the dunes and threatened to put salt water in my garage (where I replaced my water heater after Matthew). I also checked into an inland hotel room, just in case an evacuation of the barrier island was ordered on Sunday. Then I went home and waited.
Isaias slowed down on Sunday, creeping up the coast to around Cape Canaveral by nightfall. Its western side was unexpectedly dry as upper-level winds pushed most of the weather east of the center. But a close pass to the beach might still have triggered storm surge. Authorities were loath to order mass movement during a pandemic, so by Sunday afternoon they felt confident enough to advise everyone to stay home. Still, being so close to the beach, I wanted to keep a close eye on the storm. A track 50 miles out or more would be safe, I figured. A track inside 20 miles could be trouble.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, the National Hurricane Center’s bulletin projected that 12 hours later, or just before sunrise Monday, the center would be at 29.0 degrees N, 80.1 W. In 24 hours, it would be at 30.9 degrees N, 79.9 degrees W – off the southern coast of Georgia. By the time it approached Florida’s northern border, the storm would no longer be creeping westward. Instead, it would be starting its eventual curve to the northeast.
I was between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville. Using Google Maps, I could pinpoint the Daytona Beach Main Street Pier at 29.227507 degrees N, 81.006117 degrees W. (If you try this, note that for west longitude or south latitude, Google uses negative numbers. It uses positives for east and north.)
The National Weather Service offers a handy calculator that pinpoints the distance – your choice of kilometers, statute miles or nautical miles – between any two coordinates. Given the forecast as of 5 p.m. Sunday, I made a guess that when the storm passed Daytona’s latitude, its longitude position would be about 80.08 degrees west. (I was interpolating the two positions, so while it was a guess, it was an educated one.) The calculator told me that as the storm center passed Daytona Beach, it was forecast to be about 56 statute miles offshore. It would be even farther from my home, as the coastline leans westward from Daytona Beach north to Jacksonville. By that point, the storm would be moving about due north.
I went to bed Sunday night confident that my sandbags would be perfectly dry, except maybe for a little rain, on Monday morning. They were.
It is possible to have some fun with these sorts of calculations, at least if you are the type of person who thinks maps and math can be fun. Google Maps gave me the coordinates for the Kremlin in Moscow. I could then calculate the distance from my north Florida home to that Russian landmark: about 5,500 statute miles. That may strike you as surprisingly low. But the Great Circle route – the shortest distance between two points on the globe – and Moscow’s northerly position make it correct. This is the route that long-haul aircraft typically fly. A flight between Jacksonville’s airport and Moscow’s Sheremetyevo is computed at 8,835 kilometers, or 5,489 miles.
It is about 4,200 miles from my Florida home to the North Pole. But it is a mere 1,100 miles or so to Santa’s Workshop in North Pole, New York, a hamlet in that state’s Adirondack Mountains.
I promise I will not do a follow-up blog post on “Fun With Flags.” That franchise belongs to someone much better known and more entertaining than I am, anyway. But I thought it was worth sharing a few tips on how to find here and measure the distance to there, in case you ever need to decide whether to go to the hotel or to just settle down behind your sandbags.