Understanding nature’s fury

UF researchers take their lab to the middle of the hurricanes

It was Sept. 28, and Forrest Masters, a civil engineer from the University of Florida, spent the day hunkered down at the Punta Gorda Airport near Fort Myers, Florida, as 120-miles-per-hour winds from Hurricane Ian lashed the building — and nearby instruments collected data.

For scientists like Masters and his team, Hurricane Ian, which roared onto Florida’s southwest coast as a Category 4 storm, was both a research opportunity and an ordeal. The winds cut power for more than 2.5 million and caused extensive damage, and floodwaters swamped communities.

“The purpose of our program is to measure surface wind speeds, so we deploy 6,000-pound weather stations that are 33 feet tall and designed to withstand up to 200-mile-per-hour winds,” said Masters, who has been conducting field experiments like this for 20 years in more than 40 storms. “The purpose of our program is to measure surface wind speeds. We take out ruggedized weather stations and deploy them right where the highest winds are expected to arrive.”

Masters and team take the data gathered from the field during a storm and compare it to wind tunnel modeling performed at UF’s Powell Family Structures & Materials Laboratory. With support from the National Science Foundation, UF is developing new tools that test hazardous winds on a variety of artificial landscapes inside the lab’s wind tunnel to help better understand how storms impact cities and towns.

“Within 90 seconds, we can dial up any terrain at any realistic geometric scale for testing,” explained Masters, interim dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. “We want to understand what the worst of the worst is going to be and inform manufacturers to produce products that are going to withstand nature’s fury.

“The goal is to design homes and business, so that people can survive during an extreme wind event.”

Learn more about UF’s wind hazard experimental facility here.

Karen Dooley May 26, 2023