4 Hurricane Simulators That Whip Up Fake Storms

The University of Miami's SUSTAIN. Image Credit:Gort Photography

Accurate hurricane forecasting is vital for warning those who live in a storm’s path. Underestimates of a hurricane's strength can result in a dangerous lack of preparedness, while overhyped predictions can lead to some people choosing not to evacuate during the next big storm.

Besides their threat to human lives, hurricanes have been some of the most expensive natural disasters in the U.S., destroying homes, businesses, and infrastructure. A 2011 estimate put the median cost of damage from a single hurricane at $1.8 billion dollars, though some, such as Hurricane Katrina, cost much, much more. 

To figure out how exactly hurricanes work and how they will impact the communities they strike, scientists not only use computer simulations and models, but create artificial hurricanes. To mark the start of hurricane season on June 1, here are just a few examples of the many ways in which researchers whip up fake storms. 


Skip to 2:22 to see SUSTAIN.

The world’s largest hurricane simulator just opened at the University of Miami in Florida. At 20 feet wide and 75 feet long, the SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction facility holds 38,000 gallons of seawater and can simulate winds stronger than 155 mph. Inside the lab, with the help of paddles and huge fans, researchers can recreate the effects of hurricane-force winds combined with waves and water surges across coastal topography, studying the impacts of storms that make landfall. Some of the studies currently on the facility’s roster include one to determine how hurricanes spread oil spills, as well as one about hurricanes’ impact on fishing nets. Eventually, the research will help improve forecasting models that predict storm surges. 

2. Harvard Forest hurricane manipulation experiment 

The aftermath of a 1938 hurricane in New England. Image Credit: Harvard University

In 1990, Harvard Forest, a 3,500-acre ecological research site at the university, set up a study to analyze the impacts of the rare but powerful hurricanes that hit New England every 50 to 200 years. These storms tear up forests, changing ecosystems for centuries afterward. To simulate how a hurricane damages trees, Harvard researchers recreated the effects of a 1938 hurricane in the area. Ecologists used a mechanical winch to pull down trees in a two-acre plot of the forest, using data from the 1938 hurricane to determine which trees would fall and in which direction. For the more than two decades since, the scientists have been studying how the ecosystem is coping and adapting to the damage. 

3. A hurricane on wheels

Skip to 3:05 to see the portable hurricane at work.

The University of Florida built the world’s largest portable hurricane simulator in spring 2007. An assistant professor in the civil and coastal engineering department put together a truck-sized fan system that could simulate the impact of a Category 3 hurricane and the torrential rain that accompanies it on residential buildings. With eight five-foot-tall fans and a 5,000-gallon water tank, it sprayed vacant houses with 35 inches of rain per hour and winds up to 130 miles per hour. Now-associate professor Forrest Masters and his undergrad researchers constructed the hurricane-on-wheels for just $500,000

4. The Wall of Wind

Florida International University houses the Wall of Wind, a 12-fan hurricane simulator that can simulate Category 5 storms. The first two-fan incarnation of the system, built in 2005, could generate 120 mile-per-hour winds with horizontal rain. The latest simulator can blow air up to 140 miles-per-hour, allowing researchers to study how to build more resilient structures.

Watch NASA Test Its New Supersonic Parachute at 1300 Miles Per Hour

NASA’s latest Mars rover is headed for the Red Planet in 2020, and the space agency is working hard to make sure its $2.1 billion project will land safely. When the Mars 2020 rover enters the Martian atmosphere, it’ll be assisted by a brand-new, advanced parachute system that’s a joy to watch in action, as a new video of its first test flight shows.

Spotted by Gizmodo, the video was taken in early October at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Narrated by the technical lead from the test flight, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ian Clark, the two-and-a-half-minute video shows the 30-mile-high launch of a rocket carrying the new, supersonic parachute.

The 100-pound, Kevlar-based parachute unfurls at almost 100 miles an hour, and when it is entirely deployed, it’s moving at almost 1300 miles an hour—1.8 times the speed of sound. To be able to slow the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere, the parachute generates almost 35,000 pounds of drag force.

For those of us watching at home, the video is just eye candy. But NASA researchers use it to monitor how the fabric moves, how the parachute unfurls and inflates, and how uniform the motion is, checking to see that everything is in order. The test flight ends with the payload crashing into the ocean, but it won’t be the last time the parachute takes flight in the coming months. More test flights are scheduled to ensure that everything is ready for liftoff in 2020.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
German Nonprofit Gives $1.1 Million to Restore World’s First Iron Bridge in England
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The UK’s Iron Bridge is more than just a pretty landmark. Built in 1779, it was the world’s first metal bridge, a major milestone in engineering history. Like many aging pieces of infrastructure, though, it’s in dire need of repair—and the funds to shore it up are coming from an unexpected place. According to The Times, a German foundation has pledged to pay for the conservation project as a way to improve relations between England and Germany in the wake of Brexit.

Based in Hamburg, the Hermann Reemtsma Foundation normally funds cultural projects in Germany, but decided to work with the UK’s charitable trust English Heritage to save the Industrial Revolution landmark as a way to reinforce the cultural bond between the two countries. The foundation has pledged more than $1.16 million to the bridge's renovation effort, which will cost an estimated $4.7 million in total. Now, the UK charity only has to raise another $32,800 to fully fund the work.

The Iron Bridge was cast and built by Abraham Darby III, whose grandfather became the first mass-producer of cast iron in the UK in the early 1700s, kickstarting England's Industrial Revolution. It was the world’s first cast iron, single-span arch bridge, weighing more than 400 tons. In 1934, it was declared a historic monument and closed to traffic, and the Ironbridge Gorge was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

“The Iron Bridge is one of the most important—if not the most important—bridges ever built,” English Heritage CEO Kate Mavor told the press.

The techniques used to erect the Iron Bridge were later adopted throughout Europe, including in Germany, leading the Hermann Reemtsma Foundation to call it “a potent reminder of our continent's common cultural roots and values.”

The already-underway repair project includes replacing elements of the bridge, cleaning and repairing others, and painting the entire structure. Since it sits above a fast-flowing river where erecting scaffolding is difficult, the project is especially complex. It’s scheduled to be completed in 2018.

[h/t The Times]


More from mental floss studios