It was a student who first suggested to MIT Professor Kerry Emanuel that he use a classroom teaching tool to forecast hurricanes.

“I laughed and said, ‘No, this is a toy. It’s not supposed to be more than that,’” said Emanuel, widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on hurricane physics.

“And then I went home and thought about it.’”

Emanuel designed the teaching tool by simplifying the complex programs forecasters use to predict tropical cyclones. It helped students learn how to forecast storms without the need of expensive supercomputers to crunch the numbers. Students could run Emanuel’s program on a laptop, maybe even on paper, instead of in a supercooled warehouse full of servers.

He hadn’t imagined the simplified tool would do a better job forecasting hurricanes than its complicated predecessors.

“We tried it, and to our amazement it seemed to do a pretty good job of forecasting the intensity of real hurricanes,” Emanuel said, to the point that organizations like the U.S. Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center now use Emanuel’s tool, still classified as experimental, as part of a suite of models generating forecasts for naval fleets at sea.

Emanuel has been using the tool—dubbed The Coupled Hurricane Intensity Prediction System, or CHIPS—to forecast hurricanes for a decade now, and he has data showing that it has outperformed more complicated hurricane models, especially when gazing further into a storm’s future.

CHIPS has another advantage. Because it’s cheap and easy to run, it can be used to process thousands of permutations of possible hurricanes in the planet’s future.

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