The Cone of Uncertainty

Before the Storm, July 3, 2014

The East Coast’s weather conditions led a friend to post this morning that she doesn’t think she likes being in “the cone of uncertainty.”

NOAA has set out a bright blue and green map; within it is a “cone” (which looks more like an elongated teardrop to me) mapping the as-yet-unrealized but likely vicissitudes of Hurricane Arthur’s dire offshoots–including tropical depressions, storms, and cyclones.

Strictly speaking, the shape doesn’t look at all like a cone to me: it’s closed off, not open-ended–more like a deflated balloon than a cornucopia.



The mathematics of uncertainty are dryly recited: “forecast uncertainty is conveyed by the track forecast ‘cone’ . . . .The solid white area depicts the track forecast uncertainty for days 1-3 of the forecast, while the stippled area depicts the uncertainty on days 4-5. Historical data indicate that the entire 5-day path of the center of the tropical cyclone will remain within the cone about 60-70% of the time. To form the cone, a set of imaginary circles are placed along the forecast track at the 12, 24, 36, 48, 72, 96, and 120 h positions, where the size of each circle is set so that it encloses 67% of the previous five years official forecast errors. The cone is then formed by smoothly connecting the area swept out by the set of circles.”

Well, then.


Break in the Storm

(I’m going to add here that one of my sons is currently studying the placement of points on ellipses, in a pure mathematical kind of way.  He may be one of the few people on the planet who can actually envision such theoretical locations in fields of space.)

Of course, any Breaking Bad fan is aware of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and its rich metaphorical possibilities when misappropriated by us liberal-artsy types.

But this was the first time the phrase “cone of uncertainty” appeared on my radar.

Yesterday it did not seem as if today it would be raining . . . .

Sometimes it the knowing and sometimes it is the not knowing that can drive one to distraction.

Is there hope?  If so, what is the measure of things for which it is reasonable to hope?

What if the treatment works, but the disease returns?

Is it worth trying or risking?

What does life now hold?

And my ever-hopeful husband Jim would have added, generally when coaxing me to try something I feared, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

The flip side of the cone of uncertainty is hope, along with an awareness that many things are beyond our control, that both “beautiful and terrible things will happen,” and that sometimes one should watch and wait out the storm.

Let’s say we inhabit a cone of possibilities.


Double Rainbow After the Storm



Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school near the the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water; she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

2 thoughts on “The Cone of Uncertainty”

    1. I think it was Thomas Hardy who said, “And yet to every bad there is a worse.” I’m not sure there can truly be any worse than you’ve experienced, but I hope you’re able to navigate with the beauty in what remains.

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