MIAMI - The world's largest hurricane simulator is now complete and experts hope it will improve forecasters' ability to predict how strong a storm will get, which has been a key weak spot for science until now.
The $15 million (S$20 million) wind and wave machine at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science resembles a giant aquarium tank, without the fish.
When lead scientist Brian Haus switches on the 1,700 horsepower engine, a roaring sound fills the $47 million building that houses the tank, known formally as SUSTAIN (SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction Facility).
Paddles begin to roil the 38,000 gallons (144,000 liters) of fresh water, though salt water can also be used.
Aquamarine waves arc gracefully against the acrylic windows, then grow increasingly frenetic as a Category 5 wind blows over the top at a speed of 156 miles per hour (251 kph).
Soon, spray droplets scatter across the sides of the steel-framed tank, which measures 75 feet (23 meters) long, 20 feet wide and 6.5 feet deep.
A miniature model of a green-and-white house gets drenched by crashing waves that resemble a real-life storm surge assaulting a coastal property.
Haus, a self-described "wave-junkie," stares intently at the indoor storm he has helped create.
How strong will it get?
A "key component of SUSTAIN will be to improve hurricane intensity forecasting," he explains later in his office, since anything but shouted conversations are difficult to maintain near the tank.
"Over the last 20 years our track forecasts have been getting better and better. But the thing that hasn't gotten any better over the past 20 years is hurricane intensity forecasts."
Perhaps the best example of a storm that outwitted even the most seasoned forecasters was Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It exploded in strength over Mexico, rising from Category 2 to 5 in a matter of hours.
"That is the thing that really scares forecasters because it makes it hard for them to do their job," Haus says.
Wilma became the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, killing dozens of people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage.
Living through Wilma and the far deadlier Hurricane Katrina, known for causing mass devastation in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico that same year, propelled Haus to find ways of better understanding the physics of storm strength, and how the warmth of the ocean can power a hurricane.