When hurricanes sweep across the ocean’s surface, they whip up a foamy mix of sea and air, swapping energy in a loop that can crank up the force of powerful storms.
The physics of that exchange — nearly impossible to measure in the dangerous swirl of a real storm — has remained largely a mystery, vexing meteorologists who have struggled to improve intensity predictions even as they bettered forecast tracks. Now scientists have a shot at solving that puzzle with a new 38,000-gallon research tank unveiled this month at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami.
Powered by a 1,400-horsepower engine, the tank will let scientists map Category 5 hurricanes in three dimensions for the first time.
“It can really help us understand why this behavior is occurring,” said Mark Powell, an atmospheric scientist with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration who published a study on the exchange in the journal Nature in 2003.
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The $15 million tank, financed by the foundation of late Texas oilman Alfred C. Glassell, an avid angler whose record catch for a black marlin still stands, is part of the university’s seawater complex. The tank is housed in a new $50 million LEED-certified building that replaces a 1960s-era building, and ties together a divided campus where researchers routinely lugged buckets of fish and marine life across the Rickenbacker Causeway between labs and offices.
The new tank will also provide ways to better study climate change and the transfer of heat from air to water, interpret satellite data and improve predictions on how oil spills spread.
In the 1950s when UM first opened its marine science school, research occurred mostly at sea — think the Belafonte in the movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Scientists launched missions aboard sailing labs that didn’t always provide stable conditions. But technology has increasingly moved work onshore. To stay competitive, the school needed a makeover, said dean and climatologist Ronni Avissar.
In the works for nearly 15 years, the building also holds labs where the university breeds the nation’s supply of California sea hares, a shell-less snail critical to brain research and conducts research on coral, key to protecting coasts from rising seas.
Uniting all the disciplines that use seawater had the unintentional result of bringing research on increasingly critical topics like climate change and biomedical health under one roof.
“It was not like somebody came up with a fantastic idea that was going to revolutionize the world. It was much more pragmatic,” Avissar said.
The idea for the tank was triggered by something even more pragmatic: the lure of a grant. To win the $15 million, marine physicist Brian Haus said he knew the school had to pitch something big — at least bigger than the three-by-50 foot tank he was then using.
Scientists have long relied on tanks to simulate water movement. But big tanks sunk in concrete are limited to two-dimensional imaging. Smaller tanks allow views from three sides, but the tight confines interfere with wave production, Haus said.
In a hurricane, the ocean ingests air, blurring the normal separation between sea and air. Powerful winds can push water bubbles 40 feet below the surface. Meanwhile, winds can sheer off the tops of waves, pulling water into the air. All that swirling of water and air mixes up their normal physical properties. As winds become extreme, the friction between air and sea suddenly decreases. Why that happens is not understood, Powell said. But the grand scale of the tank might help them find out.
“We are striving to measure things that have never been measured before. So the potential results of that are significant,” said Haus, whose first batch of research from the tank was reported in the journal ScienceDaily in July.
The tank will also help engineers study how structures withstand the forces of water, potentially far more destructive than wind and something the building and insurance industries want to know.
“That’s a big unknown right now,” NOAA scientist Powell said. “Building materials are tested for wind and building codes take into account wind, but water forces are not well known.”
The scale of things drops considerably across the hall from the tank, where two floors of labs are linked by pipes providing seawater or freshwater and windows are storm-proofed with three-inch-thick glass. In one chilled room, associate dean Michael Schmale, a marine biologist who oversaw the project, runs the sea hare lab. Schmale’s snails, which are shipped around the world, were used for groundbreaking work on memory loss that won a Nobel prize for a Columbia University neuropsychiatrist in 2007.
“We didn’t get gold faucets. We didn’t get everything we wanted because the budget was limited,” Schmale said. “But we got the important stuff.”