The University of Miami's SUSTAIN. Image Credit:Gort Photography

Accurate hurricane forecasting is vital for warning those who live in a storm’s path. Underestimates of a hurricane's strength can result in a dangerous lack of preparedness, while overhyped predictions can lead to some people choosing not to evacuate during the next big storm.

Besides their threat to human lives, hurricanes have been some of the most expensive natural disasters in the U.S., destroying homes, businesses, and infrastructure. A 2011 estimate put the median cost of damage from a single hurricane at $1.8 billion dollars, though some, such as Hurricane Katrina, cost much, much more. 

To figure out how exactly hurricanes work and how they will impact the communities they strike, scientists not only use computer simulations and models, but create artificial hurricanes. To mark the start of hurricane season on June 1, here are just a few examples of the many ways in which researchers whip up fake storms. 

1. SUSTAIN

Skip to 2:22 to see SUSTAIN.

The world’s largest hurricane simulator just opened at the University of Miami in Florida. At 20 feet wide and 75 feet long, the SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction facility holds 38,000 gallons of seawater and can simulate winds stronger than 155 mph. Inside the lab, with the help of paddles and huge fans, researchers can recreate the effects of hurricane-force winds combined with waves and water surges across coastal topography, studying the impacts of storms that make landfall. Some of the studies currently on the facility’s roster include one to determine how hurricanes spread oil spills, as well as one about hurricanes’ impact on fishing nets. Eventually, the research will help improve forecasting models that predict storm surges. 

2. Harvard Forest hurricane manipulation experiment 



The aftermath of a 1938 hurricane in New England. Image Credit: Harvard University

In 1990, Harvard Forest, a 3,500-acre ecological research site at the university, set up a study to analyze the impacts of the rare but powerful hurricanes that hit New England every 50 to 200 years. These storms tear up forests, changing ecosystems for centuries afterward. To simulate how a hurricane damages trees, Harvard researchers recreated the effects of a 1938 hurricane in the area. Ecologists used a mechanical winch to pull down trees in a two-acre plot of the forest, using data from the 1938 hurricane to determine which trees would fall and in which direction. For the more than two decades since, the scientists have been studying how the ecosystem is coping and adapting to the damage. 

3. A hurricane on wheels

Skip to 3:05 to see the portable hurricane at work.

The University of Florida built the world’s largest portable hurricane simulator in spring 2007. An assistant professor in the civil and coastal engineering department put together a truck-sized fan system that could simulate the impact of a Category 3 hurricane and the torrential rain that accompanies it on residential buildings. With eight five-foot-tall fans and a 5,000-gallon water tank, it sprayed vacant houses with 35 inches of rain per hour and winds up to 130 miles per hour. Now-associate professor Forrest Masters and his undergrad researchers constructed the hurricane-on-wheels for just $500,000

4. The Wall of Wind

Florida International University houses the Wall of Wind, a 12-fan hurricane simulator that can simulate Category 5 storms. The first two-fan incarnation of the system, built in 2005, could generate 120 mile-per-hour winds with horizontal rain. The latest simulator can blow air up to 140 miles-per-hour, allowing researchers to study how to build more resilient structures.