It starts out as a light wind and a few small waves lapping the shore. But in less than a minute, the minor storm becomes brutal. Howling winds turn the water choppy and rough and storm surges are so massive that they consume a small house. With 157 mph winds, this is a category 5 hurricane, likely to cause catastrophic damage to property, humans and animals.
This cane, though, is happening inside a cutting-edge research tank at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science.
UM's new hurricane simulation tank, called the SUSTAIN (Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction), is the world’s largest 3D experiment to study the impacts of hurricanes and other coastal weather events. Scientists just started working with it last month on Virginia Key to study the way wind and waves interact in the confused, complex patterns of hurricanes.
The 38,000-gallon tank is 23 meters long, six meters wide and two meters high. Paddles churn the water to make waves and a ventilation fan mimics the wind. A small green house on the shore is pummeled by waves and sea spray, creating visual perspective of the height and force of the waves. When the force reaches category 5, the whole tank shakes and vibrates.
It's virtually impossible to measure the way air and sea interact during a major hurricane. But in the tank, "wind-wave-surge forecast models" help scientists get a fairly good idea of what’s going on, says Brian Haus, an oceanographer at the University of Miami and director of the new tank.
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In the past month, Haus and his team have studied the wind and water patterns with lasers and other devices, and then scaled them through computer modeling. They can also view wave patterns from all sides, and even stand beneath the tank.
Haus says the findings can then be useful both for short- and long-term hurricane preparedness — "like knowing how and when people should evacuate,” he says. “And also measuring how to make the next generation of coastal structures more resilient and able to survive.”
A month into the experiment, Haus says he’s got one key takeaway about Category 5 hurricanes: He sure as hell doesn’t want to be in one.