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.

What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?

For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

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Popcorn Might Be the Cheap, Biodegradable Robot Power Source of the Future

If you've ever put a flat bag of kernels into the microwave and pulled out a full bag of fluffy popcorn two minutes later, you've witnessed a fascinating bit of food chemistry at work. Now, IEEE Spectrum reports that scientists are looking into applying the unique properties of popcorn to robotics.

For their study, presented at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Cornell scientists stuffed the movable parts of a robot (a.k.a. the actuators) with unpopped kernels of corn. Usually actuators are powered by air, hydraulics, or electric currents, but as the researchers found, popcorn works as a cheap single-use alternative.

When heat is applied to popcorn kernels, the water trapped inside them turns to steam, creating enough pressure to peel back the tough exterior and release the starchy endosperm. A sudden drop in pressure causes the endosperm to quickly expand, while the cool outside air solidifies it.

The results can be dramatic: When popping extra small white kernels, the cheapest popcorn tested, researchers saw them expand to 15.7 times their original size. Inside a soft robot, this amounts to building interior pressure that moves the actuator one way or another.

A similar effect can be achieved using air, and unlike popcorn, air can be pumped more than once. But popcorn does offer some big advantages: Using popcorn and heat is cheaper than building air pumps, plus popcorn is biodegradable. For that reason, the researchers present it as an option for robots that are designed to be used once and decompose in the environments they're left in.

You can get an idea of how a popcorn-powered robot works in the video below.

[h/t IEEE Spectrum]


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