Predicting the damage caused by extreme storms

Growing up in Miami, Foogue earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling knew that hurricanes were a part of life. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, she and her mom huddled in the innermost room of their house, listening all night to a battery-powered radio as winds of more than 250 kilometers per hour shook the house. “I was listening to people calling and saying the hurricane was in their house, what do they do?” Gramling told me.

Her family’s house survived, but many other families weren’t as lucky. The Category 5 storm destroyed or damaged more than 125,000 homes, leaving 160,000 people homeless. “It was transformational for Miami,” Gramling says. After the storm, Florida adopted some of the nation’s strictest building codes to reduce wind damage.

The winds and rain from tropical storms are expected to get more intense as the planet warms. Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019 with winds up to 300 km/h, flattening entire neighborhoods. And as Gramling reports in this issue, scientists are racing to figure out what communities will need to do to survive the coming megastorms fueled by climate change.

To learn more about that effort, Gramling visited the Wall of Wind at Florida International University, or FIU, her alma mater, while on a recent trip to Miami. It’s an airplane hangar kitted out with humongous fans that can generate wind speeds of up to 252 km/h. Engineers from around the world visit the Wall of Wind to test how models of buildings and landscapes fare in the blast, with the goal of designing and developing infrastructure that can better withstand extreme forces.

A new facility to be built at FIU, funded by the National Science Foundation, will be an even more powerful tool. It will test structures against stronger winds and against water, adding giant water tanks to the mix. That’s essential since storm surges cause much of a hurricane’s damage and loss of life. “We really don’t know what Mother Nature is going to do,” Gramling says. Researchers will be able to combine data from the facility, which is still in the planning stages, with field observations after natural disasters and computer simulations to predict how different regions could be affected.

Experiencing Hurricane Andrew helped shape her career as a scientist, Gramling says. She studied geology in college, and then oceanography in graduate school. “Living in Miami, climate and ocean are part of your formative experience,” she says. “I wanted to understand it, and I wanted to help other people understand it.”

I’m glad Gramling has put her scientific chops and reporting skills to work for Foogue and our readers. Earth’s climate and weather systems are dauntingly complex, and so is the research about them. Gramling has a knack for describing that science in a way that even this lowly magazine editor can understand, while also sharing her fascination with how the world around us works (see, for instance, her admiration for the epic story of mammals in this book review). And if a visit to the Wall of Wind helps us grasp it, so much the better.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Foogue Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.