Hurricane researcher follows storm fury in the lab and on the land

Forest Masters stands in front of honeycomb structured cells designed to capture wind speed

Forrest Masters has received more than 50 grants from state, federal and private organizations in support of his research on tropical cyclones.


Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

Forrest Masters was an undergraduate student at UF when a professor asked if he wanted to join a research team that chased tropical cyclones. He has been tracking storms ever since. In addition to conducting research during major storms, Forrest oversees UF’s advanced wind tunnel – a National Science Foundation user facility that attracts researchers from across the U.S. In this episode of From Florida, Forrest shares what it is like to conduct research in the middle of a hurricane and how his research may help contribute to more resilient communities. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, Emily Cardinali and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and today we're talking about hurricanes.

Experts predicted that the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season would have above average tropical storm activity. And they were right. There have been 20 named storms as of October 11, and we won't reach the end of what is the typical hurricane season until November 30.

This season storms have resulted in damages collectively estimated at more than $70 billion. On top of that, dozens of people have lost their lives during flood surges and other storm-related events. This loss of life and property makes the work of the University of Florida researcher who is joining us today incredibly vital.

Forrest Masters is a professor of civil and coastal engineering in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. He works in the college's School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment and is also the college's associate dean for research and facilities. In addition to his work at UF, Forrest serves on the board of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Forrest has received more than 50 grants from state, federal and private organizations to support his work, which is focused on developing a deeper understanding of hurricane behavior and how to better design structures to withstand the increasing ferocity and frequency of these storms. Forrest, it's a pleasure to have you with us today.

Forrest Masters: Good morning. Really great to be here.

Nicci Brown: So as a starting point, I'd love to learn more about what made you interested in hurricanes in the first place.

Forrest Masters: For me, it began as an undergraduate student at the university. I was in a structural engineering course and the professor came to me and said, ‘Do you want to chase storms?’ And when you're 20 years old, there's only one answer to that question. And subsequently I got involved in an undergraduate research program here and that's when I really began to fall in love with the study of tropical cyclones. And from there, I built a career. Eventually became a professor studying both the meteorological effects of these events, but also studying how buildings respond under extreme winds and wind-driven rain conditions.

Nicci Brown: So, you've conducted field experiments in nearly 40 named storms, several of them Category 4. What's it like to chase a hurricane?

Forrest Masters: Well, certainly it's not as sensational as what Hollywood would show you. There's a lot of hurry up and wait, honestly, and a lot of driving. When we leave the university, we're bringing a lot of equipment. We have a convoy of vehicles, large trucks, trailing portable weather stations that get deployed in the path of the storm and hauling other types of equipment. Ultimately, we're bringing the lab to the hurricane.

As deployments typically go, I'd say most of the work actually happens in the lead-up to the event. There's just a lot of planning and preparation. But once we hit the road, we stay on the road. And so generally all of our trucks, we have 100-gallon diesel reserves so we don't have to do a lot of stopping. We keep moving, we move to the site, we do a lot of coordination on the road with local officials to get permission to go into different places.

There's a lot of communication with meteorologists and other people that are keeping close tabs on the storm to identify the right place to be. But when we actually get there, it's relatively quick. We have these 6,000-pound weather stations that when they're fully deployed are about 33 feet in the air. You know, we've done this now for almost 20 years, over 20 years. So, we have a lot of experience putting these out. So that takes on the order of about an hour to put one up. We move around the area, we put these in strategic locations. We're often coordinating with other university teams that are in the field. For example, we have colleagues at Illinois and Texas Tech and Oklahoma and University of Alabama Huntsville who bring portable Doppler radar systems.

And we try to co-deploy so that as they're surveilling above, we're taking measurements below. So there's just a lot of coordination and we get out there. But I don't think our heart rates get over 100 beats per minute or anything like that. It's a very intentional process. And you know, this is the great thing about doing it today. The amount of information I have at my fingertips is exceptional. So I really have a great idea of what's going on, down to maybe the 15-minute increment about weather conditions to get us in the right place at the right time. So, I hope I didn't dash any dreams for anybody that's listening about how exciting this is to go in the field.

It is quite exciting, but at the end of the day it's work and it's professional work. That's how it's treated. We're very safety conscious and we spend a lot of time making sure that we have the best information to make sure that we're making the right decisions. We're trained to be highly analytical, to respond to changing situations, so this is a perfect environment to put those skills to test. There's a lot of improvisation involved because you don't know exactly where you need to be and by when you need to be there. The situation is very fluid. It's a wonderful opportunity to work with your colleagues and particularly to bring students in the field. In my experience, it brings out the best in them. They almost always, after leaving their first storm, come out a different person, someone who's more prepared for their professional future and someone who's more in touch with the issues that ultimately drive all the engineering work that's being done to protect society from these storms.

Nicci Brown: I understand that we've become a lot better at tracking hurricanes. But with all of the science and technology we have at our disposal, why aren't we better at predicting the changes in the strength of hurricanes?

Forrest Masters: Predicting the intensity of a storm, it's a very tricky business. Storms, when they're moving across the Atlantic and eventually they recurve and they strike the U.S., as they're moving towards the shoreline typically they're encountering a lot of new conditions. I mean, the presence of land, for example, cuts off the supply of moisture and heat. We also see dry air become entrained in the storms, among other factors. And so the reality is when a storm's over the water, often we know more about it than we know about it when it's actually making landfall. It's the period of sort of greatest uncertainty because of those changing conditions. And that's in large part what motivates us to go out in the field and take the type of measurements we do, is really to create both situational awareness about the overall storm intensity but also to collect data that will be used for many generations from now to improve those models. So, eventually we hope we can help put ourselves out of the storm chasing business by having better and more actionable data to improve modeling.

Nicci Brown: So, we hear about modifying clouds with seeding. Why can't we modify hurricanes so they just dissipate or become less powerful?

Forrest Masters: The topic of weather modification has existed for a long time. And there are notable projects that looked at all possibilities to do this, including a very large one called Project Storm Fury, which was done in the last half of the last century. And generally, the biggest problem with modifying a storm's intensity is simply the sheer amount of energy in a storm. These large events can have more than 100 terajoules of energy. It's not straightforward. There isn't a magic bullet here to kill a hurricane.

So while it may be true that some of these technologies can be deployed and can ultimately reduce intensity in certain parts of the storm, when you're talking about a storm that spans hundreds of square miles, it's not a trivial thing to do. And also there are unintended consequences of modifying the environment that have to be dealt with.

I wouldn't rule out at some point in the future of humankind, we don't figure this problem out. But for the time being at least, it's a very complicated problem. And we have other areas certainly where we can make a difference in terms of, for example, improving our building codes and standards and our design practices. And there's also just handling the flow of people during these events through evacuation and that type of thing to give us a more direct path to ultimately reducing the impact of the storm.

Nicci Brown: So, the data you collect when you are chasing hurricanes, what is that data like? How do you gather it and how are you using it?

Forrest Masters: The purpose of our program is to measure surface wind speeds. We take out ruggedized weather stations that are designed to withstand up to 200-mile-per-hour winds. And we deploy them right where the highest winds are expected to arrive. And we measure wind in three different directions at a very high resolution. And that ultimately allows us to characterize the structure of these damaging winds. And that's important because the nature of the turbulence affects the loads that act on buildings. And so we're able to make strong inferences about if we're going to simulate that environment, for example, in our wind tunnel here at the University of Florida, we can use that information to help improve those simulations so that we're doing additional testing. The data are also used for post-storm damage assessments. This is one of the, probably the hardest problems, hurricanes, these extreme events, make it very difficult for people to actually go out and observe what's going on.

Yet, engineers and meteorologists are called immediately back in to tell us what happened. And so providing these types of measurements gives us a very clear line of sight on what the wind field intensity was at that location so that we can evaluate if the building stock performed adequately. And as often is the case, what we do see is a lot of damage at well below design wind speeds. And that's important because it allows the engineering teams to pinpoint what are the links in civil infrastructure that ultimately cause systemic failures. So, those are some of the ways that we use the data. We also provide it to operational users.

It's fairly common to see when the National Hurricane Center is monitoring hurricane weather conditions at landfall that were reported out on measurements we're taking. And in turn, this information is shared with emergency managers, both at the state and local leve,l who are ultimately figuring out when can they get their people back in. So it's a wonderful community of people, both on the research and operational side, sharing information and supporting each other.

That by far is probably the part I love the most about being in this role is interacting with all these people that are so passionate about doing the best they can to take care of the affected community. And I take a lot of pride that I'm part of that community and I can contribute to it.

Nicci Brown: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that wind tunnel. It's called the Terraformer and it's quite central to your work. Can you tell us more about what it is and what it actually can do?

Forrest Masters: So, in addition to our field work, we do a lot of work in our laboratory. We, for example, do physical testing where we actually destroy systems to see how they perform and then we study the underlying engineering that led to the design. We also operate a large, what's called a boundary-layer wind tunnel. And the purpose of the wind tunnel is to simulate, at a reduced geometric scale, the actual atmospheric boundary layer. So you can imagine if you went outside and you felt the wind on your face and it's changing in different directions, well that's a product of the fact that the wind is moving through trees and buildings to get to you. And so we actually, in this tunnel, we can simulate the Earth's landscape over a very far extent.

And the Terraformer is one component of the wind tunnel that allows us to dial up any type of terrain at a specified geometric scale. So if you came to me and said, I need to run an experiment at 1 to 100 scale in marine conditions or a 1 to 10 scale in suburban conditions, within 90 seconds we can reconfigure the floor of the wind tunnel. There are over 1,100 individual roughness elements that we can raise and lower and twist to give us exactly the type of condition that we'd expect. And so the Terraformer allows for high-throughput testing in different types of terrain environments to evaluate loads or evaluate how buildings might move, aerolastically is how that's referred to, in the wind among other applications.

Nicci Brown: How large is it?

Forrest Masters: The wind tunnel's quite large. It's one of the largest in the world actually for this type of application. Nominally at the test section it's 20-feet wide by about 10-feet tall, and it's powered by eight large what are called vane axial fans. And it's an open-circuit wind tunnel because it's so large and also the tunnel in length, I think, is about 125 feet. So it's a pretty substantial piece of equipment to operate. In fact, because it's so large and we built so much sophistication into the equipment we use to control the flows in it, it actually became a National Science Foundation user facility back in around 2015. So, anybody in the United States that's an academic that wants to use the wind tunnel can work with the National Science Foundation to come to our lab. So, we have people coming there all the time to exploit its unique capabilities and its size.

Nicci Brown: Fantastic. So, it sounds like this really does help guide you when you're looking at building an infrastructure safety and the guidelines or recommendations that you would make.

Forrest Masters: Yeah. That's what we're shooting for. I would say our aspirations go further than that. I mean, ultimately, we're trying to create a test bed that allows people to be as creative as possible about exploring these issues. So, I wouldn't say that the structural engineer is the target audience. It goes way beyond that. You know, we work with meteorologists, we've worked with people in other fields looking at different types of technology deployment for sensing and so on. I think that's really, I mean, if you really had to distill down what we do at the University of Florida, I think it's trying to push the envelope. The facility, although it probably could operate with the speed and productivity of a commercial facility, that's not the intent. The intent is to allow people to come in and try wild new ideas that potentially could be transformative or ultimately lead to better solutions in an engineering context.

Nicci Brown: And to your earlier point, this really is a community, if you will, of people interacting and coming up with solutions and trying things out. Despite the improvements we're seeing in building codes and the like, we are still seeing increasing damage to buildings. So with all of that in mind, what are the implications that you see for the future?

Forrest Masters: Yeah, this is, I think, one of many lenses when you think about society and how it operates that tells us a lot about how the U.S. infrastructure will change over time. Because ultimately, we're looking at buildings that might have existed 50 to 100 years and are expected to be around for another 100 years or so. And the implication is that actually in solving the hurricane problem, we have to actually understand how buildings perform in day-to-day weather. So I think it's a good platform to sort of study the holistic performance of buildings. And if you want to sort of step out to more of a macro scale, when you think about how communities respond to events, that's the thing about a natural disaster or some other type of exogenous shock to a community. Time speeds up. And all the bad things that might happen to that community over 20 years might happen in three months.

And so there's a real opportunity to, I think, self-reflect on how resilient communities are in the face of these events. And, specifically, to places like Florida, which has a lot of coastline and I think upwards of a 1,000 people a day moving into the state, it's an opportunity to think long term. I have real concerns about what the state of evacuation will look like in 50 to 100 years in a crowded place like southeast Florida, where people can't build. I mean, we're going to be forced to think about the function of buildings, particularly sheltering in place in areas that don't flood more so than we've ever thought about that before. So, these events really, I think, positively influence design engineering thinking around what we're going to do. And ultimately this is a silver lining, I guess, to the problem. It forces us to think about building better communities to stand up to these events.

Nicci Brown: Forrest, thank you for the work that you're doing and that of the other researchers that you partner with. It was great to have you as a guest on our show today. Thank you so much.

Forrest Masters: Thank you.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty, researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host Nicci Brown and I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.

UF News November 16, 2021