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Homeland Security

Army Scientists Developing Hurricane Prediction Models

Jun 04, 2008
BY Lindy Kyzer

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 4, 2008) -- Hurricane season officially began June 1, but Army scientists and engineers have been working all year developing new models to determine the probability and impact of coastal storms.

Dr. Donald Resio, senior technologist with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center at the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory in Vicksburg, Miss., is one of the Army's leading experts developing new formulas and models that analyze coastal evolution, climate change and hurricane characteristics in the Gulf Coast region.

At a blogger's roundtable May 22, Resio spoke about what the Army is doing now to be prepared for the coastal activity that may be on the horizon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works with other organizations to develop state-of-the-art models to determine probable flood levels and risk, said Resio. A recently developed joint probability method for the first time allows the incorporation of uncertain information.

"It actually lets us look at the models from what could happen with any hypothetical storm, including the uncertainty in the models and predictions themselves," said Resio.

Scientists use physics, mathematics and probability to develop their weather models. According to Resio, history has also proven a valuable resource.

"Before last year, there was only a short set of data publically available that contained information on storm size. It didn't go back into the 1960s; it didn't go back to the 1940s."

Resio approached a private organization that did have data going back to the turn of the last century, and convinced them to release that to the public. Storm size information that was previously unavailable is now in the public sector.

In a field where probability, risk assessment and some level of uncertainty go hand-in-hand, historical information adds depth to the models being created. Resio hopes that the time spent studying risk will help educate the public living in those high-risk areas.

"The team has worked awfully hard to try to do that," said Resio. "There is a team dedicated to risk probability...hurricane outbreaks like this, a storm like a Katrina is so infrequent by my estimate - it is well above the 100-year return period - how do you convince people they need to be concerned about that? The risk communicators have their hands full."

One of the benefits of the cooperation between the Corps of Engineers and other agencies, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has assisted in greater continuity in design work for levees in the Gulf Coast region, according to Resio.

"FEMA and the Corps agreed to use the same hurricane surge levels for critical areas within the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, from Mississippi to the Gulf Coast we're the same," said Resio.

This cooperation in establishing a single federal estimate for coastal inundation helps everyone in levee design and construction to prepare for the hurricanes that science still can't predict.

"There's some strong research going on in these areas," said Resio. "We'd like to improve the basic physics of these models. We probably have the 80 percent model, but there are some things that we have to leave out; we simply don't know enough to model it.

"That's where the physics comes in. There's a lot we don't know, and we're not pretending to know everything. We have to be willing to learn."

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