Miami researchers plan to study ‘hurricane in a tank’

Computer models are more sophisticated than ever, but they still aren’t able to fully approximate conditions in a system as chaotic as a hurricane.

That’s why the University of Miami is building a giant research facility — complete with a 28,000-gallon tank — designed to help scientists better understand the complex interactions involving air, ocean water and sea spray in a hurricane.

“No one can accurately model what happens when the ocean is just so churned up that there’s so much water in the air and so much air in the water,” said Brian Haus, a professor of applied marine physics at the university. “It’s been a real ongoing challenge. You can’t model it, and it’s really difficult to measure in the field.”

The university broke ground on the new $47-million Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex at the start of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and expects to complete construction in late 2013.

The two-building complex will include a wind-wave-storm surge generator that can create Category 5-type (the strongest hurricane category) conditions in a 3D environment. Researchers at the complex will be able to study and measure such factors as sea spray and momentum transfers across the ocean’s surface under those extreme storm conditions. The goal is to gain a better understanding of how hurricanes behave in hopes of produce better hurricane forecasts.

“Forcing, rapid intensification and storm surges — we still grapple with these oceanic and atmospheric processes that take place during extreme weather events,” Haus said. “This made-to-order tank, which is about the length of a bowling alley and the width of six bowling lanes, will provide us with a realistic, but scaled and controlled environment where we can observe different aspects of the interaction between sea and air to help us create more complete hurricane predictions. It will also provide an unprecedented opportunity for scientists to collaborate between disciplines to attempt to address the impact of extreme loads (wind and surge) on coastal structures and study how they withstand — or fail to withstand — the elements.”

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