South Florida Gets Gigantic Hurricane Machines

by | November 3, 2014 AT 4:30 PM

By Ken Kaye

Florida, the most storm-battered state in the nation, now is home to groundbreaking research that allows scientists to dissect the raw power of hurricanes.

Both the University of Miami and Florida International University have built complexes that recreate realistic hurricane conditions, including the enormous wind, battering waves and rainfall they can generate.

The idea is to provide scientists with a better understanding of how the storms work, information that should help improve forecasts and bolster construction.

Additionally, the Miami Museum of Science makes it easy for patrons to view the inner workings of hurricanes _ and get a feel for flying into one.

It's not easy to witness the destructive power of a Category 5 hurricane up close and personal.

Yet that's what UM scientists can now do inside a tank the size of an indoor swimming pool, housed in the school's new $50 million Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex.

The tank holds 38,000 gallons of water, which a special machine churns to create large battering waves. A separate 1,700-horsepower turbine engine with propeller fans attached are used to mimic the devastating effects of 200 mph winds.

Then the winds and waves are teamed up and the result is a human-made storm even more frenzied than Hurricane Andrew, only it's contained inside see-through walls.

That makes it the only test laboratory in the world where hurricane conditions are so authentically recreated, said Roni Avissar, dean of UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

"It's the combination of the two, the wind and waves, superimposed on the water, that makes this so remarkable," he said.

The special tank, housed inside a gray-concrete setting, will help answer multiple questions about the structure of hurricanes and the physics of how they draw heat energy from the ocean, Avissar said.

Ultimately, the goal is to improve hurricane forecasting and intensity predictions.

"It allows us to understand way better what's happening at the interface of where the ocean and the storm meet," Avissar said. "A lot of it has to do with the transfer of energy from the ocean into the storm."

Another major goal will be to see how hurricanes can ravage coastal homes and buildings, in hopes of finding ways to strengthen construction and improve building codes, he said.

To do so, one end of the tank has a curved, raised-up stainless steel "beach," where models of homes and office buildings will be placed for experiments.

The $15 million tank is the centerpiece of what the school hopes will be numerous and diverse experiments performed by a host of agencies, from the U.S. Geological Survey to the U.S. Department of Energy.

NOAA is expected to be one of the biggest experimenters since it already spends millions to better understand the structure of storms through satellites and sophisticated radar systems on hurricane hunter aircraft.

FIU's International Hurricane Research Center simulates storms with its Wall of Wind _ a giant $10 million machine with 12 fans that can produce winds in excess of 150 mph.

Its primary focus is to study how various categories of hurricanes impact various structures. And its 8,000 horsepower electrical engine requires so much energy it has a direct line to FPL's Turkey Point nuclear plant. "We've worked a lot on roofs and how to construct them better. Also on how to make soffits, the area under a roof's overhang, more waterproof," said Steve Leatherman, the former director of the center who championed development of the wall.

In addition to powerful gusts, the wall includes a mechanism to douse structures with several inches of simulated rainfall per hour to recreate hurricane conditions as accurately as possible, said Leatherman, now an earth and environment professor.

"The rain really adds to the damage," he said.

Leatherman said the Wall of Wind originally started with two fans powered by big noisy Chevy engines. Now housed in a hangar at FIU's engineering center, the wall is so state-of- the-art that the insurance industry built a similar facility near Charlotte, N.C., but with 100 fans, at a cost of $30 million, to test winds on two-story structures.

"I'm very happy that now there are two walls of wind in the world," he said. "We need both of them."

While it doesn't exactly simulate hurricane conditions, the Miami Museum of Science has the actual cockpit of a Lockheed P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft as part of its hurricane exhibit.

"The really cool part about it is that you can sit in it and pretend to be the pilot," said Angela Colbert, the museum's science curator. "All the stuff around the cockpit is based on the instrumentation of the real thing."

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