This University of Miami lab recreates category 5 hurricanes in a 30,000 gallon tank

hurricanes in a tank sustain
University of Miami/Gort Photography
Think most people die in hurricanes due to wind? Think again. You’re much more likely to die as a result of storm surge, and that’s what researchers are studying in a new $45 million dollar lab at the University of Miami.

Called SUSTAIN, short for SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction, the lab aims to understand both the ocean’s effect on the atmosphere itself as well as on-land infrastructure. This research is vital: not only will better understanding of storm surges lead to more flood-resistant structures, but will improve forecasting of this often overlooked danger.

SUSTAIN’s hurricane in a tank is colossal. The tank itself measures 75 feet long by 6.5 feet high and holds some 30,000 gallons of water, roughly six times larger than any hurricane simulator ever built. It also produces the severest of conditions: top winds peak out at over 200 miles per hour — stronger than almost any hurricane on record.

Tank operators carry out research by recreating conditions from previous storms and then study their effects on the water. How the waves form and move could be vital to understanding how best to forecast surge movement and intensity, while the spray created from the high winds might be important to understand how storms get their strength.

Why would sea spray matter? There’s at least two possible reasons. As spray is picked up, it evaporates and transfers heat to the atmosphere. Sea water also includes an important compound — sodium chloride — which is known by meteorologists to be an extremely efficient substance to form the heart of clouds and raindrops, or “cloud condensation nuclei.”

Meteorologists have a good handle on these processes on land, but over water it’s a different story. There are theories on how this air-sea interaction may alter hurricane intensity, but frankly there is little in the way of concrete evidence that there’s any link. If everything goes as planned, SUSTAIN will help scientists fill that knowledge gap.

Another side to SUSTAIN’s research is effects of storm surge on infrastructure. Researchers plan to test wave effects on various structure and bridge design in order to gauge its durability and improve construction. While we may never be able to create a “surge-proof” building, SUSTAIN’s research may at least be able to mitigate some of the damage.

Other planned work for the team includes studies to improve satellite imaging of the world’s oceans, development of better sea-based instrumentation, and effects of waves, winds, and currents on ocean biology.

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