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The cone of possibility

Published February 06. 2010 09:00AM

Down here in 'hurricane country,' we pay close attention to the Weather Channel and our local meteorologists. We heed their warnings and keep our dials tuned in whenever a "low pressure" system heads in our direction. We watch storms as they turn from tropical disturbances to hurricanes, and we are savvy about the level numbers for the storms. We understand that a Category 1 will drench us and knock some branches off our trees, and a Category 5 will flatten almost every structure and cause catastrophic damage.

One of the most interesting phenomenon during hurricane weather reporting is the "cone of directional possibility" - an ever-widening estimate of where the hurricane will make landfall. Because predicting weather of any sort is a crapshoot at best, the meteorologists have created this cone to show all of the possibilities, based on currents, wind shear, water temperature and other scientific measurements.

Imagine how scary it is to be sitting in your comfortable, beachfront home on the Florida panhandle and watching as the weatherman points directly at your area as the place for a hurricane's landfall! If you're smart, you immediately break out the hurricane shutters, go fill your gas tank, get some cash from the ATM, buy canned goods, batteries and bottled water, and batten down the hatches. If you're really smart, you pack up your vehicle and get out.

Modern science has improved to the extent that there is usually plenty of warning for us. In all parts of our country - for every weather emergency - we get told ahead of time to be prepared. Except for tornados, that is. Those whirlwinds crop up without much notice and can devastate an area quickly. Sometimes the only warning we get is when we actually see the monster headed for us.

Why am I giving a science lesson? Because I wanted to tell you of an educational use for the "cone of possibility." You and your family can use this concept to plan for the future.

Let's take a typical example - your child's answer to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Suppose he says, "I want to play for the NFL." Fine. Let's use the Cone of Possibility to examine that. Imagine that a place on an NFL team is the center of the Cone. What are the chances that your kid will actually don a uniform for a major sports team? What needs to be done ahead of time so that he can hit the bull's eye? Make a list and start checking it - not twice, like Santa - but every chance you get. Athletic ability? Check. Desire? Check. Training? Check. Get the idea?

If your child has a different goal - making the Honor Roll, for instance - what are the steps that need to be taken for that to happen? Homework done? Check. Studying time daily? Check. Test preparation? Check.

Surely, even with good preparation and practical thinking, there will still be bumps in the road. The storm can change course and those nasty tornados can crop up without warning. Maybe there will be a broken leg during football practice - or an especially hard subject that challenges even the best-prepared student. That's when the Cone of Possibility helps you realize that there can be more than one ending to a story.

People in Tampa, FL were getting ready for a major hurricane, because the weathermen told them it was headed right at them. Instead, the storm veered slightly and hit the small town of Punta Gorda, FL - almost flattening it. Were those people expecting that? No. Did they handle it and move on? Yes. They had no other choice. Did they create their own new Cone of Possibility? I'm sure they did.

The day that the science of weather prediction can look at a wave coming off the coast of Africa and say "That will turn into a Category 3 hurricane and hit Pawleys Island, SC" will be the day that a Cone of Possibility isn't necessary. I doubt that I'll live to see it.


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