While meteorology has advanced quite a bit in the past few decades, we still have a lot to learn about the exact nature of hurricanes— how exactly they form, how they travel and how we can mitigate property damage and the loss of human life. At the University of Miami in Florida, scientists are learning about hurricanes by creating mini hurricanes in a gigantic aquarium.
Last month, the University of Miami broke ground on the 45-million-dollar Marine Technology & Life Sciences Seawater Complex, which will house a tool that will give Haus and other scientists studying storms more steady, predictable, and controllable access to an important resource in their work—the hurricanes themselves.
The hurricane simulation tool, which is named SUSTAIN (short for SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere Interaction) is a tempest in a teapot the size of a small house. When it’s completed, it’ll be unique in its ability to create category-5 level hurricanes inside of a lab, across a 3-D field of waves made of real sea water pumped into the building at 1,000 gallons per minute. With it, scientists will be able to better understand the process by which hurricanes are fueled by warm water.
We know that hurricanes grow in power when they pass over deep warm water, and mellow out when they pass over colder areas. But we don’t know much about the actual process of this energy transfer on the molecular level. By using salt water, the simulator more accurately creates sea spray and foam, which are believed to affect its evaporation into the atmosphere. And for the moment, how much heat is transferred directly and how much is transferred by evaporation is completely unknown. By simulating different kinds of waves and wind conditions, some with more and less spray, the scientists can measure the air and water temperature shifts using thermisters to model the delta in heat transfers when there’s varying amounts of spray.
Knowing how this process fuels hurricanes will allow scientists and meteorologists to build smarter models of them, so we can forecast them with more accuracy. And its not possible, or easy, or safe to make these observations in the field. He says, “At sea, you have to deal with the real beast, but in the lab, we have the opportunity to create the hurricane when and how we want it.”
The hurricane simulator and SUSTAIN is being designed by Cambridge Seven, the cross-functional architecture and engineering firm which got its start by winning the bid to create the New England Aquarium 50 years ago by being the only firm to mention fish in their pitch. Peter Sollogub, Associate Principal at Cambridge Seven, says the hurricane simulator is comprised of three major components:
The first is a 1400-horsepower fan originally suited for things like ventilating mine shafts. To create its 150mph winds, it will draw energy from the campus’s emergency generator system, which is typically used during power outages caused by storms. The fan, sitting next to sensitive instrumentation, must have its vibrations isolated. “It’s like your right hand is in a hurricane and your left hand is conducting retinal surgery,” Sollogub says. The wind speeds are sensed through laser and sonic wind meters (otherwise known as anemometers).
The second part is a wave generator which pushes salt water using 12 different paddles. Those paddles, timed to move at different paces and rates, can create waves at various sizes, angles and frequency, creating anything from a calm, organized swell to sloppy chaotic seas. To reduce wave refraction, the end of the pool has a perforated, parabola-shaped beach to dissipate wave energy.
The third aspect of the tank is the tank itself, which is six meters in width by 20 meters in length by two meters high. It’s made of three-inch thick clear acrylic so that the conditions inside can be observed from all sides. They’ve got to create ductwork for the air that creates “well behaved high velocity flow” so testing is accurate.
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