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Buoy designed to collect hurricane data

Developers hope a new device will lead to more knowledge of storms.

August 09, 2007|Ken Kaye | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — It might seem a strange thing to wish for, but Will Drennan and Neil Williams hope a Category 5 hurricane will approach Florida -- closely enough, anyway, to clobber their 7 1/2 -ton ocean-going buoy.

That's because the buoy should provide critical new insight on how the most powerful storms draw strength from warm waters. That, in turn, should improve storm forecasts, say Drennan and Williams, both researchers with the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

"What we're trying to do is measure how much energy is actually being transferred from the ocean into hurricanes, or any other storms," said Drennan, head researcher behind the buoy project. "That will give us a much better idea of how these systems grow."

While Drennan and Williams have spent years developing the buoy, its hull, 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, was designed by the U.S. Navy and is shaped like a boat.

On Friday, it is to be moored 250 miles off Jacksonville in what's known as "hurricane alley," the swath of the Atlantic where storms frequently traverse.

The buoy, nicknamed The Easi -- for extreme air-sea interaction -- then will measure the rate at which sea spray around storms evaporates. The faster the spray evaporates, the stronger a storm is likely to be, Drennan said.

The existing government buoys around the U.S. coastline provide wind and temperature measurements, but they don't have the ability to observe the more complex heat-transfer process, he said.

Further, buoys that have been bashed by Category 4 and 5 storms usually suffer too much damage to be useful. The Easi buoy was developed to be rugged enough to withstand the most brutal conditions, Drennan said.

Indeed, he said, it is more vulnerable to high-seas vandals, who might steal equipment from it or use it for target practice.

"You don't stick anything in the water with a guarantee you'll get it back," he said.

The National Science Foundation provided almost $1 million for the buoy project.

If it is hit by just one major hurricane, the buoy should collect enough data to almost immediately improve computerized forecast models, which are relied upon heavily by the National Hurricane Center in Miami. But it could be awhile before an intense system rolls right over it, Drennan said.

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