Forget Moby Dick’s white whale – a tropical cyclone is by far the most difficult ocean beast to track. This rotating system of clouds and thunderstorms, most commonly known to North Americans as a hurricane once it reaches a certain size and speed, is typically several hundred miles wide with winds as fast as 155 miles per hour.
These vast storms are essentially a physics puzzle, in which the interaction of moisture, wind, air, heat and other elements can trick even the most knowledgeable scientists trying to forecast both the path and intensity of a hurricane. In the last decade, weather models have gotten much better at predicting path and landfall, but they have been less skillful when trying to estimate pressure and maximum wind speeds.
So when the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center recently launched a new hurricane prediction model capable of tracking a storm’s intensity, it was no small feat. Known as COAMPS-TC (Coupled Ocean/Atmosphere Mesoscale Prediction System-Tropical Cyclone), the model can accurately forecast wind strength one to five days out. This is essential information for fleets and installations that might need to evacuate or protect their facilities—under- or overestimating the strength of a storm can be a costly mistake.
Miami residents no longer have to wait to see if their latest home improvements can withstand a hurricane that blows ashore.
Florida International University researchers have built a 12-fan simulation that can produce a category 5 hurricane’s sustained 150 mph blasts of air. The fans’ combined 8,400 horsepower can test models for hurricane-proofing even large-scale structures, and water sprayers help simulate the penetration of high-speed horizontal wind-driven rain.
FIU says the simulation, called the Wall of Wind, is the largest and most powerful university research facility of its kind.
Top Image: External view of the FIU Wall of Wind. Courtesy Florida International University.