It still astonishes meteorologists. In the span of just 24 hours, Hurricane Wilma, the 22nd named storm of the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, intensified from a tropical cyclone to a Category 5 hurricane—its wind speed soaring from 70 to 175 mph.
But as remarkable as Wilma’s rapid intensification was, it isn’t the only case of a storm muscling up at warp speed. As Hurricane Charley approached Florida’s west coast in 2004, its sustained winds jumped from 110 to 150 mph in only three hours. And in 2007 Felix strengthened from a meager tropical depression to a Category 5 hurricane in 51 hours.
“We don’t know completely what causes hurricanes to rapidly intensify,” said Brian Haus, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “Track forecasting has gotten better and better, but intensity forecasts have not improved, and one of the possible reasons for that is we don’t fully understand what’s happening where the ocean and atmosphere meet in really high winds.”
That could all change soon now that the Rosenstiel School has opened its Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex, a $50 million facility that houses a 38,000-gallon, 75-foot-long tank into which researchers pump seawater to study how the ocean and atmosphere interact—the critical air-sea interface that could tell us why some storms intensify so quickly.
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Under a brief rain shower, UM officially dedicated the facility Thursday, unveiling for guests what President Donna E. Shalala called “a game changer” that will address a multitude of research initiatives, including investigations of the ocean and atmosphere, marine life, human health, and disease.
The Glassell Family Foundation supported construction of the seawater tank in the research facility, which is now officially known as the Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. SUSTAIN (Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction) Building. A $15 million stimulus grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) got the ball rolling.
“I still remember the meeting I had with faculty from Engineering and Rosenstiel,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc. “They had a vision, and we started off wondering how we would eventually pay for this facility. But we never had any doubt that we needed it.”
Shalala said the new building “is about the future—what we discover here will shape our decisions and actions.”
Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar said that “it takes literally a village to build the kind of facility we're opening here today.” He recognized some of the many individuals who played key roles in making the facility possible, including Haus, who designed the seawater tank and helped spearhead the $15 million NIST grant that partly funded the building’s construction. Generous gifts from the Marta Weeks Family and the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation also made the building possible.
Haus is ecstatic about its opening. Among the storm-related research he said it will foster are studies on designing coastal structures to survive hurricanes, improving coastal resiliency and wave modeling, and the transfer of carbon dioxide across the air-sea interface.
“I was just at the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit in Miami Beach, and White House chief scientist John Holdren and several other people said that facing the issue of mitigation and adaptation to climate change is the grand challenge for going forward in science and policy,” said Haus. “It’s the greatest threat humanity is facing. So it’s very timely that on the day of that summit, we are opening this facility, which is focused directly on research related to improving our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”
After the ribbon cutting, guests streamed into the facility by the dozens, observing the giant waves inside the SUSTAIN tank, which had been filled to almost half its 38,000-gallon capacity with a mixture of fresh and seawater. They also toured the other major component of the complex, the Marine Life Science Center, which is home to a number of labs, including the National Institutes of Health-funded <i>Aplysia</i> lab, billed as the only facility in the world that cultures and raises sea hares for scientific research on aging, memory, and learning.
In another lab, Ph.D. student Molly Broome briefed tour groups on how she is studying the effect of Prozac on the cardiovascular system of toadfish. She has discovered that oxygen consumption in fish treated with the drug declined, while fish that were not exposed to the drug were able to regulate and maintain stable oxygen levels. Broome said the lab is always a site of scientific discovery, noting that its principal investigator, Danielle McDonald, is investigating how oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill affects the physiology of toadfish.
In Rosenstiel School researcher Michael Schmale’s lab, Kirstie Tandberg, an undergraduate marine science and microbiology and immunology major, directed the attention of one tour group to a row of aquariums containing small damselfish, explaining that the colorful marine organisms may hold the key to understanding a disease in humans once known as Elephant Man’s Disease for its disfiguring tumors. Tandberg told the group that damselfish develop tumors similar to how humans are affected by the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis.
In still another lab, grad student Merly Ovares explained how she and other researchers are injecting artificial DNA into zebrafish to detect harmful algae blooms in aquatic environments. “It’s important work, because algae blooms can sometimes get into the drinking water,” she said, noting a recent toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that prompted a tap water ban in Toledo, Ohio.
The Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex is one of only a handful of proposals funded by NIST. “We picked only the best of the best,” said Mary Saunders, NIST associate director for management resources.
Saunders recalled that NIST led a technology team to the devastated regions in the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to examine and better understand just what caused buildings and bridges to fail. “In the coastal regions and in New Orleans, we would have benefited from the data and measurements that will result from this research facility," she said. “I firmly believe it was money well spent.”