Hurricanes are the costliest natural disasters that strike the United States. As the 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season gets underway, the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science will break ground on a dynamic new complex that will offer unique tools to investigators studying tropical cyclones and their impacts on coastal structures. The facility will also aid marine biologists who are studying the oceans for clues to human diseases and the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems.
Dubbed the Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex, it will be located amid the thriving science community located on Virginia Key and host a variety of laboratories that will help oceanographers, meteorologists, marine physicists and engineers study natural and manmade coastal structures and weather phenomena, as well as marine life that can impact human health. Funded in part through a $15 million U.S. Department of Commerce American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant awarded by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the project will be completed in late 2013.
“The Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex will benefit the science community at large,” says UM President Donna E. Shalala. “These laboratories will help researchers study coastal structures, weather phenomena, and marine life, all of which have a profound effect on the health and well-being of people and the planet.”
The Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction (SUSTAIN) research laboratory occupying one of the two buildings will be the only facility in the world with a wind-wave-storm surge simulator capable of generating Category 5 hurricane force winds in a 3D environment. The 28,000 gallons of filtered seawater pumped into the building will allow scientists to directly observe and quantify critical storm factors such as sea spray and momentum transfers across the ocean’s surface in extreme wind conditions. A sophisticated wave generator will enable simulation of realistic storm surge impacts.
“Forcing, rapid intensification and storm surges — we still grapple with these oceanic and atmospheric processes that take place during extreme weather events,” said Dr. Brian Haus, Principal Investigator and Director of SUSTAIN. “This made-to-order tank, which is about the length of a bowling alley and the width of six bowling lanes, will provide us with a realistic, but scaled and controlled environment where we can observe different aspects of the interaction between sea and air to help us create more complete hurricane predictions. It will also provide an unprecedented opportunity for scientists to collaborate between disciplines to attempt to address the impact of extreme loads (wind and surge) on coastal structures and study how they withstand – or fail to withstand – the elements.”
Designed by the world’s leading aquarium architects, the new seawater tank enables the development and testing of building envelopes to protect critical structures during hazardous conditions, and will also be used to innovate advanced sensor technologies, including remote and optical imaging systems that can be deployed in hurricanes. This experimental test bed will contribute to the next generation of weather and climate simulation models that can help forecasters and emergency response planners throughout the hurricane season.
The Marine Life Sciences Center, occupying the other building, will provide a dedicated space for maintaining and studying living marine animals including fish, corals and sea hares. Coral reef research will focus on helping to assess and measure the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on critical reef-building processes. Scientists will also conduct fisheries and biological oceanography research to generate models of the biological and physical processes that affect the distribution of marine organisms. They will also study the impacts of environmental toxicants including heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and toxins on fishes and invertebrates, and use marine genomics to better understand how gene expression changes in marine populations chronically exposed to pollution. Studies on the relationship between the oceans and human health, including the effects of harmful algal blooms and novel pathways in carcinogenesis will also take place in this building.
“Few facilities exist in the world where marine research is being conducted on such a wide range of aquatic organisms. The Marine Life Sciences Center will provide a dedicated space for the study of marine animals with special attention on the critical connections between oceans and human health and the impacts of climate change on marine organisms and ecosystems,” said Michael Schmale, Co-Principal Investigator, Rosenstiel School Associate Dean for Infrastructure and Professor of Marine Biology and Fisheries.
The Marine Life Sciences Center will also house the National Resource for Aplysia, the only facility in the world that cultures and raises sea hares, Aplysia californica, for scientific research. “The relatively simple nervous system of Aplysia offers an ideal model for research on neurophysiology, brain function, memory and learning, and aging, which also have implications for human diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” added Schmale who is Director of the National Resource for Aplysia.
“The new complex will give us the opportunity to conduct state-of-the-art research on some of the most devastating storms affecting our area. This research will eventually result in more accurate hurricane forecasting, and in the construction of safer coastal structures. It will also help us to better understand our marine ecosystems, which are a precious resource and source of significant income for the region,” said Dr. Roni Avissar, dean of UM’s Rosenstiel School and Professor of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography. “We are extremely thankful to NIST for recognizing the need for this complex, as well as to the current and future donors who are helping us match the funding.”