Scientists find way to simulate Category 5 hurricane

May 3, 2013 8:21:59 PM PDT
Although it feels more like winter outside right now, it won't be long and we'll be tracking storms in the tropics again.

Hurricane season begins June first, but there's a place in Florida where they can create hurricane winds any day of the year.

Scientists and engineers at a hurricane research facility in Miami have developed a tool that can create Category 5 hurricane force winds at the touch of a button.

It's called WOW, the Wall of Wind. And WOW is the first word you think of when you see it in person. It's made of 12 high-speed 700-horsepower fans working together to create hurricane force winds all in the name of science.

Right now, the Wall of Wind is only operating at about 20 percent of its maximum speed, but when these fans are blowing full Cat. 5 force, they're putting out 255,000 cubic feet of air per minute.

The Wall of Wind was built on the campus of Florida International University in Miami, just blocks away from the national hurricane center. Students test construction methods and commercial products to see if they can withstand a hurricane.

"As we all know a hurricane wind has a certain characteristic or personality. So this area right here creates the turbulence and the type of hurricane wind that Mother Nature is creating in the real world," said Eric Salna with the Wall of Wind project. "We all know a hurricane brings wind, but it also brings rain. We have the ability to add water to the system."

On the day we visited, graduate students were running a small-scale test for Texas Tech University to see how wind creates pressure on the different sides of a building.

"Couldn't you do this with an elaborate computer program?" we asked Salna.

"Great question. We have computer technology, we have the math, we have the physics and we can model so many things. Yes, we can. But you know, we still can't take out the real-world effects of wind on a structure," he said.

Like this test, comparing roofing methods developed after Hurricane Andrew. Heavier sheathing, stronger shingles and hurricane straps keep the roof on until the winds reach 160 mph.

FIU hopes the realistic weather created by the Wall of Wind will improve building codes, reduce damages and keep people safe during a real hurricane.

Some of the building codes in Florida have already changed as a result of the tests conducted with the Wall of Wind. The hurricane wind researchers say if buildings are stronger, the people sheltering inside will be safer.
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