Visualizing the path of hurricanes is more of an art than a science.
As Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico early Wednesday morning, the powerful Category 4 storm is expected to leave “catastrophic damage” with winds up to 155 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Maria’s path through the U.S. Virgin Islands follows a trajectory similar to Hurricane Irma.
The latest spaghetti plots show Maria moving through the Caribbean, where relief efforts for Hurricane Irma damage are just beginning. The U.S. Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and its islands, Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, and the Southeastern Bahamas are all under a hurricane warning, according to the National Hurricane Center.
While it’s still too soon to tell if Hurricane Maria will hit the mainland U.S., most of the spaghetti models show the storm missing Florida. There is still a chance Maria could make landfall farther up the east coast later in the week, but the majority of the predicted paths take the hurricane back out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Spaghetti plots are a succinct way to show the many different paths a storm could take, focusing specifically on the trajectory of the eye of the storm. Its name comes from the noodle-like paths on a map.
But visualizing the path of hurricanes is more of an art than a science, and spaghetti plots aren’t always accurate. It’s also not the only way to track a storm. The National Hurricane Center, for example, relies on the “cone of uncertainty” which generates a five-day forecast.
One advantage of using spaghetti plots is that they combine many models created through different methods, adding to the confidence of the predictions when lots of the paths overlap. And when making hurricane predictions more than five days out, spaghetti plots are as informative as forecasts get.
Some spaghetti plots even lean on data from ensembles, which group many predictions from the same time span together. The Weather Channel advises using ensembles in the medium to long-term forecast realm to see all of the possibilities for a given period.
There are several different types of spaghetti models.
Meteorologists consider the European Center for Medium-Range Weather, known as the European model, to be the most accurate. In fact, the European model’s predictions for Hurricane Irma were closer to the actual path than other models. And it’s worth noting that this model doesn’t show that Maria will hit the U.S.
The other common ensemble model comes from America’s Global Forecast System. This spaghetti plot shows Hurricane Maria missing Florida, but possibly making landfall further up the eastern coast U.S. over the weekend. Though it’s still too early to tell.