How hurricanes and other devastating disasters spur scientific research

portable tower for measuring wind speed

Engineer Jon Sinnreich of the University of Florida and colleagues work on a portable tower used to measure wind speeds during Hurricane Irma. Scientific data from hurricanes and other natural disasters help inform efforts to prepare for future crises.  

© Bernard Brzezinski/Univ. of Florida

Every day, it seems like there’s a new natural disaster in the headlines. Hurricane Harvey inundates Texas. Hurricane Irma plows through the Caribbean and the U.S. south, and Jose is hot on its heels. A deadly 8.1-magnitude earthquake rocks Mexico. Wildfires blanket the western United States in choking smoke.

While gripping tales of loss and heroism rightly fill the news, another story quietly unfolds. Hurricanes, droughts, oil spills, wildfires and other disasters are natural labs. Data quickly gathered in the midst of such chaos, as well as for years afterward, can lead to discoveries that ultimately make rescue­, recovery and resilience to future crises possible.

So when disaster strikes, science surges, says human ecologist Gary Machlis of Clemson University in South Carolina. He has studied and written about the science done during crises and was part of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Strategic Sciences Group, which helps government officials respond to disasters.

The science done during Hurricane Harvey is an example. Not long after the heavy rains stopped, crews of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey fanned across Texas, dropping sensors into streams. The instruments measure how swiftly the water is flowing and determine the severity of the flooding in different regions affected by the hurricane. Knowing where the flooding is the worst can help the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government groups direct funds to areas with the most extreme damage.

A day before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, USGS scientist Darwin Ockerman strapped storm-tide sensors to posts at Packery Channel near Corpus Christi, Texas. Brian Petri/USGS

In the days leading up to Irma’s U.S. landfall, scientists from the same agency also went to the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts to fasten storm-tide sensors to pier pylons and other structures. The sensors measure the depth and duration of the surge in seawater generated by the change in pressure and winds from the storm. This data will help determine damage from the surge and improve models of flooding in the future, which could help provide a better picture of where future storm waters will go and who needs to be evacuated ahead of hurricanes.

Even as Irma struck Florida, civil engineer Forrest Masters of the University of Florida in Gainesville, his students and collaborators traveled to the southern part of the state to study the intensity and variation in the hurricane’s winds. As winds blew and rain pelted, the team raised minitowers decked with instruments designed to measure ground-level gusts and turbulence. With this data, the researchers will compare winds in coastal areas, near buildings and around other structures, data that can help government agencies assess storm-related damage to buildings and other structures. The team will also take the data back to the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure labs at the University of Florida to study building materials and identify those most resistant to extreme winds.

“Scientists want to use their expertise to help society in whatever way they can during a disaster,” says biologist Teresa Stoepler, who was a member of the Strategic Sciences Group when she worked at USGS.

As a former science & technology policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Stoepler studied the science that resulted from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This devastating explosion of an oil rig spewed 210 million gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. It also opened the door for scientific research. Biologists, chemists, psychologists and a range of other scientists wanted to study the environmental, economic and mental health consequences of the disaster; local scientists wanted to study the effects of the spill on their communities; and leaders at the local and federal government needed guidance on how to respond. There was a need to coordinate all of that effort.

That’s where the Strategic Sciences Group came in. The group, officially organized in 2012, brought together researchers from federal, academic and nongovernmental organizations. The goal was to use data collected from the spill to map out possible long-term environmental and economic consequences of the disaster, determine where research still needed to be done and determine how to allocate money for response and recovery efforts.

Not long after its formation, the group had another disaster to respond to: Superstorm Sandy devastated the U.S. East Coast, even pushing floodwaters into the heart of New York City. Scientific collaborations allowed researchers and policy makers to get a better sense of whether wetlands, sea walls or other types of infrastructure would be best to invest in to prevent future devastation. The work also gave clues as to what types of measurements, such as the height of floodwaters, should be made in the future — say, during storms like Harvey and Irma — to speed recovery efforts afterward.

Moving forward, we’re likely to see this kind of collaboration coming into play time and again. No doubt, more natural disasters loom. And other groups are getting into crisis science. For instance, Stanford University, with its Science Action Network, aims to drive interdisciplinary research during disasters and encourage communication across the many groups responding to those disasters. And the Disaster Research Response program at the National Institutes of Health provides a framework for coordinating research on the medical and public health aspects of disasters and public health emergencies.

Surges in science will stretch from plunging into the chaos of a crisis to get in-the-moment data to monitoring years of aftermath. Retrospective studies of the data collected a year, three years or even five years after a disaster could reveal where there are gaps in the science and how those can be filled in during future events.

The more data collected, the more discoveries made and lessons learned, the more likely we’ll be ready to face the next disaster.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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