Want to see Irma’s power? Watch this University of Miami weather cam

On Watson Island, Irma washed ashore boats.
On Watson Island, Irma washed ashore boats.

As Irma whipped the waters off Miami into a frothy fury last weekend, a weather station mounted atop the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science documented the rising winds.

As a camera rolled, the station’s wind meter clocked climbing speeds: first 26 mph, then 38 mph, 41 mph and 73 mph and into the 80s. Eventually winds peaked at 98 mph, enough to qualify as a Category 2 hurricane had they been sustained. Gusts ultimately hit 106 mph and up. The morning sky brightens from black to gray to green to blue to white. Eventually, the school’s dock disappears under waves. Clouds wrap the sky. The ocean seethes.

From Friday afternoon until Irma passed Monday afternoon, a WeatherStem camera mounted atop the Science Laboratory & Administration Building at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science recorded the storm's risi

At 9:10 a.m., when Irma made landfall on Cudjoe Key, the eye was still about 150 miles away. At 3:35, when the storm made a second landfall on Marco Island, the eye was 109 miles off.

“To feel this type of strength so far away is very unusual,” said Rosenstiel dean and climatologist Roni Avissar. “I don’t personally know of any other storm with this type of distance impact. So it’s very impressive, very very impressive. And surprising in terms of strength.”

The weather station was donated to the school by its inventor, Edward Mansouri, a Tallahassee-based meteorologist and software designer who created Florida’s public virtual-school programming. Mansouri turned a “backyard” hobby — he’d built his own weather station years ago — into a business after coming up with the idea that real-time weather data could be a valuable educational tool. So far, he has donated stations from his company, WeatherStem, to public schools in all 67 counties and Florida State University.

“It was sort of an experiment that worked,” he said. “Within a few months we had a lot of great feedback.”

He gave two to UM, which then purchased three more. Every second and a half, the stations record a variety of conditions, including temperature, pressure, wind speeds, humidity, soil moisture, the instant rate of rainfall, and radiation. A camera takes a picture every minute. While the stations can record valuable information about severe weather, Mansouri said they have also been used for more practical matters. UM uses a station at its athletic fields to determine when turf is too hot for practice, he said.

When he looked over the recordings after Irma, Mansouri said he was surprised by how high wind speeds climbed, since hurricane-force winds at the time extended just 80 miles.

“Given how far away the eye of the storm was, relatively speaking,” he said, “it really surprised me.”

irma keys
Billy Quinn sits on his bike and the concrete slab where his trailer once stood at the Seabreeze trailer park along the Oversees Highway in the Florida Keys. AL DIAZ

Even though he uses reliable instruments in the station, Mansouri said he was starting to think they may have malfunctioned, so he double-checked the closest gauges and found similar readings. The recording he posted this week begins at 3 p.m. Friday, two days before the storm, and runs through 9 a.m. Monday.

“But when you blew up the radar and zoomed in and saw the intensity of the cells, those heavy, heavy rain bands, it really showed just how big the storm was,” he said. ”I would not have expected 100 mph wind gusts that far when the storm was over the western part of the Keys.”

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