Misinterpretations of the “Cone of Uncertainty” in Florida During the 2004 Hurricane Season

This article reviews the evolution, communication, and differing interpretations of the National Hurricane Center’s “cone of uncertainty” hurricane forecast graphic. It concludes with a discussion of this graphic from the perspective of risk communication theory. The 2004 hurricane season, in which five named storms struck Florida, demonstrated that hurricane forecast graphics, despite admirable attempts by the forecast community to make user-friendly products, are still subject to misinterpretation by many members of the public.

This exploratory analysis draws upon interviews with key government officials and media figures, archival research of Florida newspapers, analysis of 962 public comments on the National Hurricane Center’s cone of uncertainty graphic, a separate multiagency study of 2004 hurricane behavior, and relevant risk communication literature, to identify several characteristics of this graphic that likely contribute to public misinterpretation. Forecast providers should consider more formal, rigorous pretesting of forecast graphics, using standard social science techniques, in order to minimize the probability of misinterpretation.