When news of a hurricane surfaces, one of the most pressing questions that people want to know is: will it hit me?

Since 2002, the National Hurricane Center has been using the “Cone of Uncertainty” as a mechanism for attempting to give the public a visual representation of where a hurricane is headed. One of the most important things that needs to be known about a hurricane is its current location and where it is heading next.

On a weather forecast, the “Cone of Uncertainty” is a white outlined graphic image. Theoretically, it is supposed to be in the shape of a cone, but it might resemble the shape of a golf club more. This graphic image is used to determine a hurricane’s possible path by highlighting a wide area where the center of a hurricane storm might go over a five-day period. It is important to know that this image is a prediction of the path of the hurricane, and is not completely exact.

A common misconception about the cone is that it tells the size of a hurricane. While it does not account for the size or intensity of the hurricane, the cone is a prediction of where the center of the hurricane may go. In fact, the size of the cone is completely unrelated to an individual storm. Instead of being based on the particular storm, the size of the cone is created from the historical margin of error from the previous hurricane season.

At the end of every hurricane season, meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center look at all of the forecasts they have made for storms during the season and average out how far off their forecasts were from the actual location of the hurricane.

By using the average of the margin of error in this data, the radius, or width, of the cone is designed to account for two-thirds of the marginal errors from the previous season. In doing this, the track of the hurricane can be expected to remain within the cone between 60 and 70 percent of the time. This means the cone represents the probable track of the center of the hurricane and an average of 67 percent of the center locations that will fall within the cone over a five day period.

When looking at the cone of uncertainty, viewers are seeing a visual representation of where the center of the storm is predicted to head. Since the center is the strongest point, knowing the possibilities for where it might form is useful information in answering the question of whether or not you will be impacted by an oncoming hurricane.

Sources:
https://weather.com/science/weather-explainers/news/tropical-storm-cyclone-forecast-cone-hurricane
http://mentalfloss.com/article/85662/what-cone-uncertainty
http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutcone.shtml
https://www.forbes.com/sites/marshallshepherd/2017/04/17/the-hurricane-forecast-cone-of-uncertainty-may-not-mean-what-you-think/#1fad50e360a0

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