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Inside the World's Largest Hurricane Simulator

There’s a category 5 hurricane brewing in Florida, but it won’t be making landfall on any of the beaches or sweeping away any buildings. This hurricane is man-made, and contained in a 75 foot-long acrylic tank at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. This Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction Facility (SUSTAIN for short) is the world’s largest hurricane simulator—six times the size of its closest rival—and after years of planning, it’s up and running

The simulator is one part of a new $50 million Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex at the university. It is “the size of a small house,” as Brian Lam at Popular Science put it, and can hold 38,000 gallons of saltwater. A series of paddles create ripples and waves of different sizes and velocity, and with the flip of a switch, a 1700 horsepower fan (“originally suited for things like ventilating mine shafts”) sends 150mph winds whipping across the water, transforming the tank into a roiling tempest. 

By studying conditions inside the SUSTAIN simulator, researchers hope to make more accurate predictions about how strong a hurricane will be, where exactly it will land, and what it will do to buildings. "Over the last 20 years our track forecasts have been getting better and better,” Brian Haus, chair of the Division of Applied Marine Physics at Miami University told Phys.org. “But the thing that hasn't gotten any better over the past 20 years is hurricane intensity forecasts." 

Haus, a self-proclaimed “wave-junkie,” wants to know how, at a molecular level, hurricanes gain strength over warm water, without having to actually put himself or anyone else in the middle of a real storm. “At sea, you have to deal with the real beast, but in the lab, we have the opportunity to create the hurricane when and how we want it,” he says. The sheer size of the tank lets researchers recreate realistic oceanic conditions, and because the tank has see-through walls (made of 3-inch thick acrylic), they can get a good look at what’s happening inside the storm they’ve created. They’ll be using cameras and lasers to measure the changes in the water and atmosphere. 

According to the NOAA National Hurricane Center, a category 5 hurricane will destroy most of the framed homes in its path. But Haus says “most of our building codes and models for how we build in coastal areas are not based on any real information about what happens in these conditions. At one end of the giant tank sits a miniature house, which will be rigged with sensors and put to the test to help researchers get a better understanding of how man-made structures fare in large storms.

The complex has been open for a few months and has already yielded interesting information about improving hurricane forecasting. 

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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