What is the hurricane ‘cone of uncertainty’? Here’s what the forecast means for you

The cone of uncertainty, the cone of concern, the cone of death.

The hurricane forecast cone becomes a familiar sight for many people as the Atlantic hurricane season heats up during the summer and fall each year. But not everybody knows what it really means.

National Hurricane Center specialists John Cangialosi and Robbie Berg say the graphic cone forecasts, released regularly whenever there’s a hurricane out there, can be misunderstood or “used in ways it was never meant for.”

“What’s the first picture your TV meteorologist might put on the screen? It’s probably a hurricane cone, showing where the storm may go,” Cangialosi said in a new video explaining how to use the forecast.

“The cone represents the probable track of just the center of the storm,” Berg said in the video.

“The most important point is that a hurricane is not a point,” Berg said. “Impacts of the storm often occur well outside of the cone.”

Don’t use the cone to ...

  • Decide if you’re at risk from strong winds, rain or storm surge
  • Decide if you should evacuate

Do use the cone to ...

  • “Get a rough idea of where the center of the storm may go”
  • See “how big the storm is at that moment”
  • Get current wind watches and warnings for coastal areas

Berg said the forecasts get the track right about two-thirds of the time for hurricanes and tropical storms. But about one-third of the time the center of the storm veers outside of the cone.

The Hurricane Center specialists highlighted other graphics posted for hurricanes that can help people stay safe, including wind and rain predictions.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic begins June 1 and runs through the end of November.

Related stories from Miami Herald

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.