Space & Innovation

Hurricane Machine Aims to Improve Forecasts

A $15 million wind and wave machine is six times larger than any hurricane simulator ever built.

The world's largest hurricane simulator is now complete and experts hope it will improve forecasters' ability to predict how strong a storm will get, which has been a key weak spot for science until now.

The $15 million wind and wave machine at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science resembles a giant aquarium tank, without the fish.

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When lead scientist Brian Haus switches on the 1,700 horsepower engine, a roaring sound fills the $47 million building that houses the tank, known formally as SUSTAIN (SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction Facility). Paddles begin to roil the 38,000 gallons (144,000 liters) of fresh water, though salt water can also be used.

Aquamarine waves arc gracefully against the acrylic windows, then grow increasingly frenetic as a Category 5 wind blows over the top at a speed of 156 miles per hour (251 kph).

Soon, spray droplets scatter across the sides of the steel-framed tank, which measures 75 feet (23 meters) long, 20 feet wide and 6.5 feet deep. A miniature model of a green-and-white house gets drenched by crashing waves that resemble a real-life storm surge assaulting a coastal property.

Haus, a self-described "wave-junkie," stares intently at the indoor storm he has helped create. A "key component of SUSTAIN will be to improve hurricane intensity forecasting," he explains later in his office, since anything but shouted conversations are difficult to maintain near the tank.

"Over the last 20 years our track forecasts have been getting better and better. But the thing that hasn't gotten any better over the past 20 years is hurricane intensity forecasts."

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Perhaps the best example of a storm that outwitted even the most seasoned forecasters was Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It exploded in strength over Mexico, rising from Category 2 to 5 in a matter of hours.

"That is the thing that really scares forecasters because it makes it hard for them to do their job," Haus says.

Wilma became the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, killing dozens of people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage.

Living through Wilma and the far deadlier Hurricane Katrina, known for causing mass devastation in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico that same year, propelled Haus to find ways of better understanding the physics of storm strength, and how the warmth of the ocean can power a hurricane.

Researchers also hope to use SUSTAIN -- which is six times larger than any wind-water hurricane simulator ever built -- to explore how storms will damage homes and buildings along the coast.

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"This is important because most of our building codes and models for how we build in coastal areas are not based on any real information about what happens in these conditions," says Haus.

Other groups, such as the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety in South Carolina, recreate high winds, hail storms and even wildfires using life-sized homes.

But even placing sensors on the miniature house inside the SUSTAIN tank to study how it is affected by a storm can help scientists, according to Paul Wilson, vice president of model development at RMS (Risk Management Solutions) in London.

"Understanding how buildings respond to extreme weather events, those are projects which we find incredibly useful. They just add to the body of knowledge on which our models are based."

Miami is home to many storm researchers, including the National Hurricane Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hurricane Research Division, and Florida International University which houses a Wall of Wind that simulates Category 5 hurricane gusts.

NOAA and the US Air Force regularly send aircraft into the heart of hurricanes, where pilots drop parachute-lofted tubes, called sondes, to measure how the wind changes with height just above the sea surface.

Mark Powell, a former NOAA scientist who flew some of those missions into hurricanes and now heads a company called HWind Scientific, says SUSTAIN "has a lot of promise for research," and is hopeful that the enthusiasm will spread beyond the tank itself.

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"When you have a big facility like the SUSTAIN facility, there is a tendency to focus on the facility and the type of work it can do, but there is a human element too," adds Powell.

"So what I hope will happen with that facility is that there is a much stronger interaction between all the talent in the Miami area. They need to interact to really make breakthroughs."

Oct. 2, 2012 --

NASA's Global Precipitation Measurement satellite mission is working to understanding extreme weather with photos of rain and snow worldwide every three hours. But how do these storms look on the ground? NASA's GPM extreme weather photo contest highlights the beauty and ferocity seen first hand from storm-chasers before they duck for cover. Here are NASA's top five picks from over 100 submissions. This photo by Jason Weingart, a photography student at the University of Central Florida, shows a Volusia County lifeguard signaling to surfers at Ormond Beach, Fla., that it is time to exit the water. "The storm actually pushed back on shore as it moved south, and then became strong enough for tornado warnings on three separate occasions. I saw a large wall cloud, another spectacular shelf cloud, and some very tight rotation in the couple hours I stuck with the storm after I left the beach in Ormond," wrote Weingart. NASA Fun Fact: "A shelf cloud is a type of arcus cloud with a wedge shape. It is a low level, horizontal cloud formation usually associated with the leading edge of thunderstorms. The leading (outer) part of the shelf cloud appears smooth due to rising cloud motions, while the underside often appears jagged and wind-torn."

Atmospheric scientist Grant Petty of the University of Wisconsin - Madison, was with a photography club on a farm in Dane County when he saw this thunderstorm building several miles to the east. "The storm cell dropped 1-3/4 inch hail near Sun Prairie. Fall streaks barely visible under the right side of the anvil may in fact be the falling hail,” he said.

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“This photo was taken in a wash that runs through my neighborhood in Maricopa, AZ. The wash runs north/south through the neighborhood and the haboob (type of intense dust storm) was rolling in from the east," reported photographer Meggan Wood. "I saw the wall of dust coming and quickly drove to the wash to get a good wide-open view of the height of the dust looming over the houses. I barely had time to get back to my car before it hit and I was engulfed! The darkness was surprising but it only lasted about 10-15 minutes before it thinned out enough to where I could drive back home, only about 2 minutes away. This was the giant haboob that made national news when it rolled through and entirely covered all of Phoenix and some surrounding cities. Maricopa is about a half-hour drive south of the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport."

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Journalist Brian Allen with the Voice of America was at home in Arlington, Va., when this storm rolled over Washington. "The storm that blew through started off with an incredible amount of lightning and then dumped a significant amount of rain in a short amount of time -- on the other side of the river. DC got drenched and Arlington didn't see a drop,” he reported.

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Writer and photographer Brian Johnson is a also an avid storm-chaser for several Kansas radio stations. “As a large squall line moved through the area. The National Weather Service had warned about a large scale Derecho forming and moving through," he wrote. "This spawned a couple brief severe thunderstorms that dumped hail on rush hour traffic before the main line moved in. As the bigger storm moved into the Wichita area, reports were coming in of 70 mph winds and hail. There is an open farm field roughly two miles from my house that I shot lightning on the previous night. I sat there for about 20 minutes before this large squall line pushed through the clouds. I was hit with a pretty good gust front as it got closer, but as the winds increased, I decided to get to shelter. This photo was one of the last ones I took." Read more about Johnson's storm-chasing adventure here:

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