Feb 2, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Prepping for "Category 6" hurricanes, using a new wind tunnel

Illustration of a snow globe filled with a windswept house and tree

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A trend toward rapidly intensifying, powerful hurricanes in recent years is spurring experts to examine more closely how to prepare communities to better withstand such violent weather.

Driving the news: The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded about $13 million over four years to Florida International University's (FIU) Extreme Events Institute to support the design of what is essentially a "Category 6" storm simulator.

  • The grant will allow FIU to create a testing facility capable of producing winds of up to 200 mph, complete with a water basin to simulate storm surge and wave activity.

Why it matters: Tropical cyclones, known in the tropical Atlantic and eastern Pacific as hurricanes, are intensifying as the oceans and atmosphere warm in response to human emissions of greenhouse gases.

  • As storms get stronger, they are capable of inflicting more damage to homes and critical infrastructure along the coast, where the strongest winds and worst storm-surge flooding occurs, and also well inland through heavy rainfall.

Context: Currently, the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale goes from Category 1 through 5, maxing out when a storm’s top sustained winds go above 155 mph. Yet many storms have intensified so significantly that they might as well be called Category 6 storms, though the broad meteorological community has not rallied around a push to add another number.

  • In fact, the Saffir-Simpson Scale itself is flawed for other reasons, too, since it does not capture the water dangers of such storms, only the winds.
  • Hurricane Patricia in 2015 clocked maximum sustained winds of an incredible 215 mph, making it the most intense storm on record in the eastern Pacific or Atlantic Ocean basins. Hurricane Dorian, which struck the Bahamas in 2019, tied the record for the strongest Atlantic hurricane at the time of landfall, with peak winds of 185 mph when it hit the Bahamas.

Details: The new facility at FIU, which will be more heavily outfitted than an ordinary wind tunnel, will be built with the participation of other colleges, including Colorado State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, along with a private company, AeroLab.

  • It is designed to be a component of a broader initiative from the NSF to address the threats posed by natural hazards, and allow specialists from different fields to study the combined effects of extreme wind and water hazards on built infrastructure.

According to NSF, existing wind tunnels, computer models and other tools cannot fully capture the failures in infrastructure, from bridges to homes to energy facilities, that are observed during extreme weather events.

  • Research up to this point has not been done in an integrated manner, bringing multiple types of experts together in one place to examine the hazards.
  • “Climate change is fueling more intense and more dangerous storms, and cutting-edge research and testing capabilities are clearly needed to meet the nation’s evolving risks,” said Richard S. Olson, director of FIU’s Extreme Events Institute, in a statement. Olson said that within the institute, the new project is being referred to as the “Category 6 project.”
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