Chasing storms in a lab

Florida has no shortage of hurricane-fighting ambitions, but an audacious venture in Washington state measures about Category 5: It’s a Bill Gates-funded effort to destroy the devastating storms.

Good luck with that, experts say.

Three Florida universities are tackling more manageable parts of the puzzle:

* Florida State University has developed a computer model intended to improve the accuracy of hurricane predictions.


* The University of Miami plans to build a $48-million research complex to simulate how hurricane winds slash into coastal structures.

* Florida International University plans to employ a powerful machine, capable of producing 130 mph-winds, as part of a separate program to study wind damage.

Meanwhile, Intellectual Ventures, a private firm in Bellevue, Wash., intends to banish hurricanes altogether.

All of this research should strengthen the nation’s efforts to predict storms and protect residents, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.


“The ultimate benefit, of course, is to those living along the vulnerable coastline,” he said.

Florida State’s computer model has proved more accurate than most in projecting the number of storms each season -- at least, when working backward. This year, it predicts six to 10 named storms, including three to five hurricanes, in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts seven to 11 named storms, including three to six hurricanes. Colorado State University forecasters William Gray and Phil Klotzbach predict 10 named storms, including four hurricanes.

With the Atlantic hurricane season approaching its busiest stretch, from mid-August through October, the first named storm has yet to form.

In re-forecasting the hurricane seasons from 1986 to 2005, Florida State scientist Tim LaRow found that the model outperformed most others. He said he didn’t know why but that it relied heavily on forecast and observed sea surface temperatures.

“Sea surface temperatures are known to have a strong influence on hurricane activity in the Atlantic,” said LaRow, who hopes the model eventually will help the NOAA improve its seasonal outlook.

Meantime, the University of Miami received a $15-million federal grant to help build a research complex that is scheduled to open in fall 2012. With a large tank and fans, the lab will simulate how hurricane winds rip into buildings.

That should result in stronger construction materials and more resilient structures, said Brian Haus, an associate professor of applied marine physics. It also should help improve computer forecast models, he said.


“We measure very carefully the wind flow around the buildings,” he said. “You can then use that information for the computer models.”

Such research is crucial in light of development along the coastline. According to a federal study, the cost of coastal damage from hurricanes averages $10 billion a year. In 2004 and 2005 combined, when 10 hurricanes struck the U.S. coast, the damage was more than $150 billion.

Florida International is also focusing on wind damage. Three years ago, its research center unveiled the Wall of Wind, an apparatus that simulated how Category 3 winds hit a home. It has two fans.

This year, the school plans to use a machine with 12 electric fans that can generate winds up to 130 mph, or almost Category 4 strength, said Carolyn Robertson, the center’s assistant director.

“It will be able to examine larger structures than what we’re currently doing,” she said.

As for the idea to prevent hurricanes, experts doubt that Gates, Microsoft’s founder, can make it work.

Intellectual Ventures proposes placing giant tubs in the ocean in the paths of storms. The tubs would push hot water from the surface to the bottom and pull cold water to the top. Theoretically, this would disarm the storm.

But Hugh Willoughby, a research professor in the Earth science department at Florida International, said that hundreds of thousands of the tubs -- or even millions -- would have to be placed throughout the cone of uncertainty, a hurricane’s potential path.


“Nobody stops to think how many of these things it would take,” he said.