Skip to Content
Scientists search for predictability in future hurricanes

Scientists search for predictability in future hurricanes

May 6, 2020 at 1:38pm

Researchers in the Institute of Environment are arming scientists with a database that could improve impact predictions of hurricanes on coastal communities and hopefully improve resiliency planning.

With a rise in hurricane activity projected for the 2020 season, it’s critical to predict how different ecosystems may respond and recover in comparison to one another. However, to make better predictions on the impact future hurricanes may have on coastal communities, scientists need to understand how past storms have affected ecosystems across land and water. And the data collection methods need to be consistent across all areas of study.

That’s why FIU researchers worked with a team of scientists from universities and other agencies to create a database of information from past hurricanes to inform and guide what data needs to be collected in the future. As a part of this project, they also built a research framework to compare and contrast the effects of hurricanes within and across ecosystems.

In total, the team collected nearly 30,000 data records from hurricanes in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast of North America, as well as data on typhoons that impacted Taiwan and Myanmar.

“We are beginning to find similar patterns among these diverse ecosystems that are allowing us to forecast expected outcomes of future hurricanes in places that have seen more versus less frequent hurricanes, and to predict what happens to different communities as hurricanes move from open ocean to the coast and inland,” John Kominoski, an ecosystem ecologist from the Institute of Environment, said.

It’s long been a challenge for scientists to get a comprehensive, birds-eye view of how different ecosystems across land and water respond. That’s because no two hurricanes are alike. In fact, they are as unique as the names they are given. Some are small and compact. Others are massive. Windspeeds and rainfall totals vary. And they each forge their own path.

Even when two storms may be the same category, they can be drastically different. Take the incredibly active 2017 hurricane season for example. In August, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas as a category 4 with 130 mph winds. The storm caused heavy rainfall and massive flooding. A month later, Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida also as a category 4 with 130 mph winds. Rainfall was minimal, but the storm surge was devastating.

It was the minor variabilities in the storm that determined the environmental impacts. When creating the framework, they team knew they had to create something that factored in these meteorological variables.

“With hurricanes, you may have a lot of wind and water coming in to different ecosystems. Boundaries become blurred — especially when storm surge moves marine life into terrestrial territory,” said J. Aaron Hogan, a Ph.D. student researching the ecology of tropical plants in the Institute of Environment. This blurring of boundaries shows that just because ecosystems are separate doesn’t mean they don’t touch one another.

The major goal of the project is pinpointing possible similarities in the timing of separate ecosystem responses.  The framework will allow for a closer look at comparisons between ecosystem resistance (how much it has changed) and resilience (how fast it returns to its pre-hurricane state). For example, if baby bullsharks who fled their nursery in the Everglades before Hurricane Irma later returned at a specific point of time — did that timeline correspond to changes in other ecosystems, such as nitrogen levels in the water returning to normal.

“As researchers that study the impacts of hurricanes, we still didn’t have a holistic way to compare the impacts,” said Hogan. “Now, we are one step closer.”

This work was funded by an NSF workshop grant. The conceptual diagram was developed during several days of discussion among workshop participants in Corpus Christi, Texas and recently published in BioScience.