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Setting the hurricane research agenda

Workshops put NSB on fast track


by Bob Henson

After 27 tropical cyclones peppered the Atlantic last year—and with Colorado State University scientists predicting another 17 named storms in 2006—there's no shortage of practical motivation for learning more about hurricanes. The National Science Board is conducting a series of one-day public workshops designed to help the NSB's task force on hurricane science and engineering plan a newly coordinated approach to studying tropical cyclones and their effects.

The first of the workshops, oriented around federal agencies, took place in Washington, D.C., on 24 January. Another was held in Boulder on 7 February, and a third takes place in Pensacola, Florida, on 18 April. Input from the three workshops will feed into a plan that the NSB hopes to finalize and send to Congress by August, just before the height of the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season.

The goal, according to the task force's charge (see "On the Web"), is to identify research priorities, sketch the outlines of an integrated approach to studying hurricanes, and suggest how NSF can help. Because NSF has a uniquely broad role in funding all areas of science and engineering research, "it is ideally suited to coordinating a dialogue on the hurricane as an integrative research problem," says Kelvin Droegemeier (University of Oklahoma), who cochairs the hurricane task force with Kenneth Ford (Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition).

Hurricane Rita. (Courtesy NASA.)

At the Boulder workshop, there was no avoiding the contentious topic of global change and hurricane behavior. NCAR's Greg Holland and Kevin Trenberth discussed recent and ongoing work on how much of the warming across the tropical North Atlantic, where hurricanes gain their power, might be attributed to multidecadal cycles and how much to greenhouse-related global change. Trenberth also observed that the absence of hurricanes in most global climate models could be producing fundamental errors in how the models distribute heat, a topic he identified as ripe for research.

Much of the Boulder workshop focused on how research might be designed to help the nation better prepare for hurricanes, from safer buildings and smarter coastal development to warning and response systems that consider the ethnic and economic diversity of people at risk.

Psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver (University of California, Irvine) pointed to large gaps in the extensive research on how people deal with disasters and their aftermath. Few such studies have focused on hurricanes, she said, in part because it can take months for research teams to be assembled, funded, and deployed in storm-ravaged areas. The first major long-term psychological study of people affected by Katrina only got under way this month. "Nobody could get the money quickly enough," said Silver. She and others suggested that a research team be organized and funded beforehand so that it's prepared for action wherever and whenever a storm strikes.

"The evacuation problem is going to become much more serious in the foreseeable future," said Michael Lindell, who directs the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. Approaches to evacuation vary wildly from place to place, and research on how state and local governments deal with the hurricane threat is virtually nonexistent, Lindell said. Studies of evacuation often focus on nuclear families, which make up less than half of current U.S. households, and fail to consider highly transient people and those who rely on mass transit. "Societal trends are making household composition much more problematic for planning," he said.

Lindell noted that emergency managers have little data to go on when gauging the relative costs and merits of evacuation options. Officials in Houston expected 600,000 people to evacuate for a Category 5 hurricane. Yet when Rita approached—only three weeks after Katrina devastated New Orleans—more than 2 million residents drove out of the Houston area, causing massive traffic jams. Many of these evacuees had been flooded by multiday rains from Tropical Storm Allison in 1991, but not all of them needed to leave this time, said Lindell. Even a major storm surge from Rita would have stopped short of inundating many Allison-flooded areas.

To help jump-start research, several workshop participants suggested a new NSF-organized center of excellence or some other mechanism that could engage multiple universities and span disciplines. Participants pointed to major field programs and the NSF's biocomplexity initiative as possible role models, while they cautioned against diluting research within existing disciplines. They urged that forecasters continue to shift toward probabilistic outlooks of hurricane strength and path, based on the improving performance of numerical models. And they encouraged a fresh look at recommendations on hurricane research from the U.S. Weather Research Program which were drawn up several years ago but largely unfunded. As pointed out by Joseph Golden (NOAA), "One of the things we've failed to convince Congress is that research is going to help."


On the Web

Charge to the NSB Task Force on Hurricane Science and Engineering



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