Florida is famous for many things: abundant sunshine, beautiful beaches, a surplus of theme parks, and more tourists than you can shake a stick at. But it's also renowned for its hurricanes. Luckily, scientists at the University of Miami no longer have to wait around for hurricane season to study the dynamics of these massive storms, they can now produce them on demand.
The Surge Structure Atmosphere Interaction research facility (SUSTAIN), housed at UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, is a specialized lab where hurricanes are orchestrated. The facility features an enormous tank, which stretches some 75 feet in length, stands 6.5 feet tall, and holds a whopping 38,000 gallons of water. The tank is composed of clear acrylic, so that scientists can observe from a dry and safe distance, as the water within is whipped into Category 5 conditions.
The goal of SUSTAIN is to better understand the dynamics of hurricanes in hopes of improving storm warning systems and strengthening existing and future structures located in high-risk regions, which in Florida, encompasses the entire state.
That's why the scientists at Rosenstiel have partnered with engineers from UM's College of Engineering, in particular, Civil and Architectural Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, to study the physics and dynamics of landfalling hurricanes and the impact of wind-driven and wave-induced storm surges on coastal communities.
SUSTAIN's tank has been mounted with satellite sensors that can gauge conditions within. By observing simulated hurricane conditions within the tank, scientists hope to better understand satellite imagery obtained during actual storms.
"The satellites, even though they see a really big area, they tend to be sensitive to really small things on the surface," says lab director Brian Haus. "We don't really know, when you get into extreme conditions, what the satellite is seeing - whether there's a spot reflecting off sea spray or bubbles or short waves."
They hope the data they obtain through SUSTAIN will clarify such information.
They also hope it will be utilized by contractors wishing to develop disaster resistant and resilient coastal communities. SUSTAIN is currently the only laboratory that can produce hurricane force winds coupled with wind-waves and storm surges, all of it directed toward a simulated coastal landscape.
Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, spoke of the vital work taking place at the lab.
"Intensity forecasting, especially rapid intensification and especially when that happens near the coastline - that remains our highest priority forecast improvement need," Knabb says.
And their research comes not a moment too soon. Hurricane season kicks off Monday morning, on June 1.