University of Miami, NOAA launch one-of-a-kind collaboration

An aerial view of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, on left, and facilities of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, on right. Photo: Camera Copters
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

An aerial view of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, on left, and facilities of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, on right. Photo: Camera Copters

University of Miami, NOAA launch one-of-a-kind collaboration

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
The University of Miami-NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies will advance research in areas such as weather and climate observations, ecosystem science, and the restoration of marine resources.

Residents of Nicaragua were still being pummeled by Hurricane Iota’s powerful winds and life-threatening storm surge on Tuesday when a group of University of Miami scientists and administrators more than a thousand miles away explained to a virtual audience how the work of a newly funded cooperative research institute and the infrastructure that supports it will help improve our understanding of tropical cyclones and other climate events.

“Every time I walk in there my heart goes pitter patter,” Ben Kirtman, a professor at the University’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said of the school’s 75-foot-long, wind-wave tank that can simulate hurricane-force conditions. “To study air-sea interactions in a saltwater laboratory environment is unique. I’m expecting that this facility is going to tell us how to do a better job of predicting the intensity of hurricanes going forward.” 

Kirtman’s exuberance was quite understandable. After all, it’s not every day that the atmospheric scientist gets the chance to speak to hundreds of attendees in a virtual event to help launch a multimillion-dollar initiative that will advance research on several fronts. But that’s precisely what the University of Miami-NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies (CIMAS), which Kirtman directs, is aimed at doing. 

Last July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) selected the Rosenstiel School to host the center. The selection, made through an open, competitive evaluation, comes with an award of up to $310 million over five years, with the potential for renewal for another five years based on successful performance.

One of 16 joint institutes associated with the scientific agency, CIMAS will bring together the research and educational resources of 11 partner universities to increase scientific understanding of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere within the context of NOAA’s mission. 

It will conduct and coordinate research in four areas, focusing on the Southeastern United States, including the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and South Atlantic: 

  • Tropical weather observations, analysis, and prediction
  • Ocean and climate observations, analysis, and prediction
  • Ecosystem observations, modeling, forecasting, and management
  • and protection and restoration of marine resources

“I’m proud of all of our academic partners, and of course our partners across the street are most important,” Kirtman said during Tuesday's virtual launch event, which included Rosenstiel School and NOAA scientists, University administrators, and a United States congresswoman. Kirtman noted that the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and NOAA Fisheries are located on Virginia Key across the Rickenbacker Causeway from the Rosenstiel School. “This is where the magic happens,” Kirtman said. 

President Julio Frenk said one of CIMAS’s greatest strengths is the scientific and technological expertise provided by the Rosenstiel School and a consortium of academic partner institutes, which include local universities Florida International, Nova Southeastern, and Florida Atlantic. “Our collaboration with NOAA-CIMAS allows us to conduct mission-driven research which addresses hemispheric and locally relevant problems,” Frenk said.

"A great achievement for the [Rosenstiel] School as well as NOAA" is how Dean Roni Avissar described the collaborative institute.

“Conducting relevant research is truly a key foundational cornerstone of the University of Miami,” said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “And this cooperative institute will build on its legacy of highly successful research and infrastructure accomplishments from the previous cooperative institute.” 

Duerk said the institute will continue to accelerate scientific innovation in several areas. One of which is research into why hurricanes intensify rapidly. “As a relative newcomer to South Florida, it was in my first 10 weeks that I experienced Hurricane Irma,” he said. “And it was only then that I realized the scope and scale of hurricanes. Prior to that, I might have thought about blizzards and 40 inches of snow coming from Cleveland, Ohio.” 

It was the physics and science of hurricanes that piqued Duerk’s curiosity, and during Tuesday’s CIMAS launch, he noted how understanding tropical cyclones requires implementing multiple, high-resolution modeling techniques while simultaneously capturing an array of tropical systems in the developing Unified Forecast System as well as assessing various in situ ocean and atmosphere observations. 

It is a process, he said, that also involves machine learning techniques. “The planned machine learning activities are a high-profile example of how CIMAS will leverage the newly established University of Miami Institute for Data Science and Computing and the high-performance computing capabilities housed therein,” said Duerk, noting that iDSC’s capabilities, which employ one of the top five high performance computing systems in the nation, bring together state-of-the-art data science techniques that will catalyze hurricane prediction models, intensity forecasts, environmental data assessments, and complex fishery models. 

Kirtman reviewed the importance of each of the four CIMAS research themes, noting that one area—marine ecosystems observations modeling and forecasting management—is of particular significance.

“This is critical,” he said. “The protein to feed the world is in the future largely going to be fish-based, so we need to be able to manage our fisheries so that we can feed the world. And to make sure those fisheries are sustainable and resilient requires careful management and modeling.” 

Kirtman also addressed coral reefs, calling them an integral part of Florida’s ecosystem and tourism industry. And he noted that the University’s infrastructure, such as the wind-wave tank, will help NOAA further its mission. The Experimental Reef Laboratory, which is located on the Rosenstiel School campus and operated jointly by CIMAS and NOAA scientists, is a prime example of that infrastructure, Kirtman explained. “It’s a fantastic lab to look at what stresses these coral reefs in terms of temperature and C02 in the ocean and how they adapt,” he stated. 

He described CIMAS’s research as actionable. “We have to have a global perspective because climate and weather don’t know boundaries. It’s all over the world,” Kirtman said. “So we have to have a global perspective, but we always come back to making sure it has a regional focus—that it produces science that can drive climate adaptation, adaptation to extreme weather events, and how the marine ecosystem needs to adapt and adjust and be protected.” 

Emily Becker, an associate scientist at the Rosenstiel School who conducts the bulk of her research at CIMAS, singled out an international program that deploys and maintains thousands of floats to monitor temperature and salinity in the upper 2 kilometers of the ocean. “Assimilation of Argo data into weather and climate models has been demonstrated to improve forecasts,” she said. “And CIMAS researchers are integrally involved in this program, from the engineering of the floats to their deployment and the analysis of observation data.” 

David Die, another CIMAS scientist who is a research associate professor of marine ecosystems and society, reviewed his study on the short-term impacts of Hurricane Irma on fish and macroinvertebrate communities of western and north-central Florida Bay, which found that the storm caused oxygen levels in the near-shore area to drop dramatically, having a detrimental effect on fish communities.

During the virtual event, Democratic U.S Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the research conducted at CIMAS “is critical because few issues are more significant to South Florida, which is ground zero for climate change.” 

“Climate change for us is not a Sunday thing, it’s a right now thing,” she said, noting that she regularly pushes for increased funding for NOAA. “CIMAS represents the best of how government and nongovernmental institutions can work together to advance research, enhance policymaking, and improve people’s lives.”