How UM's Hurricane Simulator is Helping Forecasters With Storm Predictions

Keeping South Florida safe and prepared during a hurricane is a collaborative effort. NBC 6’s team of meteorologists has the unique tool of First Alert Doppler 6000, which cuts through storms. But we also work with the National Hurricane Center to get the latest information.

Hurricane forecasting is an evolving science. Researchers are always looking for new ways to improve. The University of Miami has a unique and powerful tool of their own that will help forecasters.

“This is the largest wind and wave basin in the world. We can generate the highest wind speeds of any facility of this type,” said Dr. Brian Haus of the University of Miami. “We can generate a category five wind inside the test chamber.”

With 276 cubic meters of tank and 30,000 gallons of capacity, the University of Miami’s Sustain Laboratory can create a hurricane of its own – under the direction of Dr. Haus.

“It’s a unique research tool for understanding what happens in the ocean environment in really intense hurricane force wind conditions,” said Dr. Haus.

Located at the University of Miami’s Marine Science campus on Key Biscayne, Dr. Haus and his team are using the simulator for a dozen experiments a year. It’s fueled by monstrous generators for the wind and mechanical paddles to create the waves.

“We’re particularly interested in the intensification process,” said Dr. Haus when asked what kind of research they’re looking for. “How hurricanes can rapidly go from say a category 2 to a category 5 in less than 24 hours.”

That information couldn’t be more important or timely. Just last year, Hurricane Michael was a prime, and deadly, example of that rapid intensification.

“When you look at the spaghetti model of all tracks, all of those tracks are mostly where it’s going to go is mostly driven by the large-scale atmospheric circulations.”

If a storm is coming towards South Florida, residents typically want to know how strong it will be.

“That part is much harder to predict. Part of that is how the heat gets off the water surface to power the storm because that’s what powers it, and also how the surface of the ocean reduces the intensity of the storm because of the drag on it,” said Dr. Haus. “We’re measuring those things in a place where we can’t go in the natural world, which is right at the air and sea interface of a hurricane.”

And while the sustain lab can recreate conditions at sea, it can also provide insight into the deadliest element of hurricanes: storm surge.

“Another aspect of the work we do is engineering studies related to how you build better coastal communities,” said Dr. Haus. “The loading put on structures and infrastructures by storm surge, wind and waves acting together is an important part of that.”

The hurricane simulator is using probes that bounce sound off the surface of the waves and measures the time it takes to bounce back. They also have sensors on a scale model house to register the impact of those waves and the hurricane force wind. It’s the combination of wind and water that give the tool incredible versatility.

“We’re not doing something that everybody else is doing. We have the capacity to put natural seawater in here, which is of interest to our marine chemists because they can do studies in here related to climate CO2 transfer and things that you just can’t do anywhere else,” said Dr. Haus.

The University of Miami’s engineering school is involved, too. They’re studying the effect that coastline corals have on storm waves. Other research studies involve algae bloom, sea level rise and even oil spills.

With South Florida always keeping an eye on the tropics and serving as ground zero for climate change, the sustain tank’s work has never been more important.

“There’s never been a point in my career where I Feel like the work we’re doing is so relevant to actual people’s lives,” said Dr. Haus. “It’s a lot of fun to come in every day and try to figure some of this stuff out.”

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