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Fine art of hurricane tracking: Push is on for the 7-day forecast

NOAA currently forecasts the paths of storms five days ahead. But scientists hope to identify storm systems sooner and better predict when one is poised to intensify – thereby improving hurricane preparedness.

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Tropical Storm Emily's remnant clouds is seen over north of the eastern tip of Cuba from the NASA's GOES-13 satellite on Aug. 5.

NOAA GOES Project/NASA/Reuters

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For several days, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami had been monitoring a broad patch of storms developing in the far eastern Caribbean. The key question: Would it blossom into a tropical storm?

At 7:35 p.m. on Aug. 1, forecasters announced that what had been a disorganized system 24 hours before had quickly become the season's fifth tropical cyclone, Emily. Tropical-storm warnings were promptly posted for nearby islands, but the lead time for locals was virtually nil.

Emily's relatively quick shift from a jumbled collection of storm clouds to an organized tropical storm highlights a pair of intricate puzzles that scientists – armed with fresh data, upgraded forecasting models, and a storm-chasing drone – are pushing to solve: How can they identify the storm systems most likely to organize into tropical cyclones, and how can they better forecast when a storm is about to suddenly intensify?

IN PICTURES: Huge hurricanes

The first question is central to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) attempts to develop seven-day storm-track forecasts – up from five days, currently. And the second is crucial to making sure a storm doesn't pack a surprise when it is about to make landfall. Together, the two agency priorities could significantly aid preparedness in the United States.

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