Senior hurricane specialist Michael Brennan

Posted July 26, 2012 7:00 p.m. EDT

Michael J. Brennan is a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from North Carolina State University. He is on the adjunct faculty at NCSU, teaches on a wide variety of topics for other meteorologists and emergency managers, and is active in the scientific community as an editor and reviewer for several journals. He lives in Doral, Fla., with his wife, Jessica, who is also a meteorologist at the center.

WRAL: What does a senior hurricane specialist do?

Brennan: The job is an equal mix of forecasting during the hurricane season and outreach, training, research and other projects during the “off-season.” During the hurricane season, we issue forecasts for all tropical cyclones (tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes) in the north Atlantic and eastern north Pacific oceans. In particular, the senior hurricane specialists (there are six of us) are the primary ones who make the forecast and issue watches and warnings for storms that are impacting the U.S. We coordinate the warnings and other products with our partners elsewhere in the National Weather Service. We also coordinate watches and warnings based on our forecasts for all of the other countries in our area, from Central America to Canada and all of the Caribbean islands.

The off-season is often just as busy as the hurricane season. We spend a lot of time on outreach and training for emergency managers to help them understand the threats associated with tropical cyclones, the uncertainty in the forecasts and how they can use our products to help make critical decisions such as evacuations. In addition, I develop training for other meteorologists and remain active in the research community, working with several collaborators to publish papers and present results at scientific meetings. We also have focal-point duties in the office, and I spend quite a bit of time on developing new tools and methods to help incorporate data into the forecast process.

WRAL: What made you choose the field of meteorology?

Brennan: Like most other meteorologists, I had a passion for weather early on. As a young child, I was always interested in the weather and wondering if we’d get a snow day and be off from school.

There were also some major weather events that impacted my family when I was young. In November 1985, my grandmother lost her home in a catastrophic flood in the Roanoke Valley in western Virginia when the remnants of Hurricane Juan merged with a stalled cold front over the region. I also have pretty vivid memories of other major storms that impacted western Virginia, including Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the 1993 Superstorm and the January 1996 blizzard.

Once I realized you could have a career in meteorology, I began looking for opportunities to explore the field. N.C. State was the closest school with a major program in meteorology. After a year of community college I came to NCSU in the summer of 1996. I ended up being there for nine years through my Ph.D. work that I completed with Professor Gary Lackmann in 2005. Ironically, my graduate research focused mainly on winter weather and snow storms in the Carolinas and mid-Atlantic, but I was able to acquire a diverse skill set that led me to a career forecasting hurricanes in a place where snow is only something you see on TV!

I also had the opportunity to see the broadcast side of the field, first with Robin Reed at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke and later with Greg Fishel at WRAL. Even though I didn’t end up in broadcast meteorology, that experience definitely gave me an appreciation for how important the media is in getting the word out the public during a major event.

WRAL: What is the biggest challenge in your work?

Brennan: The biggest challenge by far is forecasting storm intensity (i.e., maximum winds). The strength of a tropical cyclone is largely driven by how thunderstorms organize and evolve around the center of a storm (where the eye develops in hurricanes). Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of observations in that part of the storm, even when we have aircraft data. Additionally, we don’t have a complete understanding of what determines how strong hurricanes get, which makes it very difficult to develop computer models to accurately predict hurricane intensity. As a result, our forecasts of tropical cyclone intensity haven’t gotten much better over the last 20 years. Improving them is one of our top priorities since they play a large role in properly warning the public of the hazards associated with a storm, particularly storm surge, which has the potential to kill the largest number of people.

WRAL: What can we expect in North Carolina this hurricane season?

Brennan: It’s very difficult to say what type of impacts there will be in any given location during a hurricane season. Even “inactive” seasons that don’t have a lot of storms overall can result in catastrophic impacts, such as 1989 when Hugo moved through the Carolinas, or 1992 when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida.

The biggest message people in North Carolina should take into the peak of hurricane season is that everyone needs to be ready every year for a potential impact, whether you live along the coast or well inland.

Coastal residents, including people who live along the sounds and tidal rivers, need to know if they live in an evacuation zone for storm surge. They need to have a plan for where they will go if they are told to evacuate. Inland residents also need to be aware of their risk for flooding from small creeks and streams to large rivers.

Flooding from heavy rainfall can impact all areas of the state, even from “weaker” systems like tropical storms, depressions or their remnants, since it’s how fast the system is moving instead of how strong it is that is the biggest factor in how much rain will fall. Additionally, high winds can also be a threat even well inland, as we saw in North Carolina during Hugo in 1989 and Fran in 1996.

After you get prepared, everyone needs to remain aware during the season and listen for any watches or warnings or instructions from your local officials. It’s also very important to remember to think of those people you know who may have a difficult time preparing or evacuating for a storm, such as the elderly or people with other special needs.

WRAL: You spend so much of your time writing, teaching and working. What do you like to do when you’re not being a scientist?

Brennan: It can be very hard to disconnect from the job during the season, especially when there is a storm impacting land. However, my wife and I both like to travel to different places around Florida and visit family and friends. I also enjoy the beach and exercising outdoors, which is a year-round activity in South Florida and often better in the winter. One of the biggest things I miss living in South Florida is autumn in North Carolina and Virginia, so I try to get away sometime in October or November each year and head north to see the trees and enjoy some dry, cooler air.

I’m also still a big fan of the Wolfpack and follow several of the sports teams closely. I try to make it to a football or basketball game each year, whether in Raleigh or in Florida if the Pack is playing down here.