Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. SUSTAIN Laboratory | Hurricane simulator gives scientists new perspective
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Hurricane simulator gives scientists new perspective

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As the Atlantic hurricane season enters its second day, forecasters predict fewer storms this year. But, they warn a quiet season could still produce a devastating hurricane.

Researchers are creating their own storms in a state of the art lab that could end up saving lives, says CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

A tank gives scientists and the rest of us a view we’ve never had before: what a hurricane’s power looks like at water level as it storms toward shore. In just two minutes, researchers can turn perfectly still waters into a monster hurricane.

The 75 foot tank is the first simulator in the world capable of creating a Category 5 hurricane over water.

Brian Haus is the director of the University of Miami’s new laboratory at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. He says the first time he cranked up the lab, it was stunning to watch.

Nearly 40,000 gallons of seawater fill the tank. Haus uses a computer program and a single 1700 horsepower fan to whip wind speeds up to 157 miles per hour.

“It’s the largest wind wave facility in the world,” Haus said. “We can generate an extreme Category 5.”

Haus and his team want to understand why some hurricanes make landfall and fizzle out, while others became catastrophes.

“It’s the heat of the ocean that powers the hurricane,” Haus said. “We know that gasoline drives a car, but if you didn’t know how much you are pouring into the engine you wouldn’t know how fast its gonna go.”

He hopes the lab will teach him how the gasoline gets into the engine of the hurricane.

Their focus is storm surge. Rising waters historically cause nine out of 10 hurricane-related deaths. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the storm surge killed 1,500 people.

“It is very rewarding as a scientist who tends to look at atmospheres on computer screens to see a real-life laboratory,” said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

For years, forecasters at the center have relied on computer models to predict a storm’s course. Hurricane hunters have flown into storms and dropped probes to gauge its intensity.

“Research like this in a laboratory is one of critical pieces we need [in order] to perhaps lead to more accurate forecasts and warnings,” Knabb said.

“We are going to find things that will change how we forecast hurricanes and, because we can do it better, we can save lives,” Haus added.

Seeing the results of the model may even encourage coastal residents who ride out hurricanes to evacuate when the next big one comes along.

© 2015 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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