Texas Tech University

2017 in Research

Ahead of the Storms

NOAA image of Hurricane Harvey

Texas Tech's Wind Researchers
Place Equipment in Harm's Way

Compiled by Toni Salama

The Texas Tech Hurricane Research Team (TTHRT) had only just returned from collecting data on Hurricane Harvey when, once again, it deployed to the Florida coast to place its portable weather stations in strategic locations. The small, rugged weather stations, called StickNets, would measure the winds, temperatures and air pressure changes of then-approaching Hurricane Irma.

Brian Hirth, PhD, TTU, with Stick Net at Hurricane Harvey on Texas CoastJohn Schroeder, Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Geosciences, founded the TTHRT program in 1998 and, as one of the most well regarded experts on hurricane winds at landfall, is the principal investigator for the Texas Tech Hurricanes at Landfall (TTUHAL) Project.

Today, the hurricane group has grown to include Research Faculty Brian Hirth; Faculty Associates Tanya Brown and Ian Giammanco; Radar Engineer Jerry Guynes; and Graduate Research Assistants James Duncan, Scott Gunter and Richard Krupar III. Or, to put it another way, the TTHRT is made up of faculty and students from the Department of Geosciences' Atmospheric Science Group and Texas Tech University's National Wind Institute (NWI).

Now with Harvey's devastating landfall four months past, Tech's hurricane experts have joined forces with a new multi-institution research center that has formed to help the Gulf Coast better prepare for and mitigate the damage and loss of lives from hurricanes and other severe storms.

The Hurricane Resilience Research Institute (HuRRI) will draw upon the strengths of its seven participating universities: Texas Tech University, the University of Houston (UH), Rice University, the University of Texas-Tyler, Louisiana State University, the University of Miami and the University of Florida. Applications for the first round of research funding will be due in early 2018.

"Texas Tech is proud to be involved in the Hurricane Resilience Research Institute, and I feel certain our researchers will make a valuable contribution to the initiative," said Joseph A. Heppert, Vice President for Research at Texas Tech. "We have outstanding faculty who have been studying hurricanes and severe storm events for decades. In addition to our world-class research in wind-damage reduction and storm-shelter design, Texas Tech has signature strengths in the atmospheric science of severe storms, storm modeling and prediction, the assessment and mitigation of secondary environmental impacts caused by severe weather, strategies for building more resilient communities, and the economic and social effects of these events on vulnerable populations."

But, getting back to when Harvey was still just a Tropical Storm, Hirth and NWI doctoral candidate Duncan left Lubbock headed for Corpus Christi. If Harvey worked itself into a hurricane, they wanted a piece of of it.

"As someone fascinated by weather, these types of events are really neat and interesting to me," Hirth said. "I have a tremendous respect and appreciation for the devastating impact they can cause. We have so much to learn still on how to make our buildings and communities more resilient to storms like Harvey. We're never rooting for this type of disaster to happen, but if it's going to, we want to be there to collect valuable measurements to advance the science."

Armed with 14 StickNet platforms to collect wind measurements, Hirth and Duncan scouted locations, deploying the instruments between Mustang Island and Point Comfort with help from Schroeder who stayed behind in Lubbock relaying forecast updates to the team. With the StickNets in place, Hirth and Duncan returned to Corpus Christi to ride out the storm.

"Our objective was to distribute these platforms along the coastal region that was to be most impacted by the winds of Harvey to not only capture the maximum winds within the storm, but also understand the spatial distribution of the hurricane's wind field," Hirth said. "It's actually a considerable amount of work identifying suitable deployment locations, making sure the platforms are adequately spaced relative to the expected size and distribution of the storm's wind field, and then being flexible enough to adapt as the forecast landfall point shifts and the structure of the storm and its winds evolve."

Even with the complexity of planning the optimum locations, the team was right on. "The deployment itself was perfect," Hirth said. "The center and eyewall region of Harvey moved over several of our instruments."

The StickNets measured wind, barometric pressure, temperature and relative humidity. Some of the older StickNets were affected by water, which compromised the wind readings, and one platform near the northern eyewall was knocked over by debris at the peak of the storm. Despite that, data gathered from Harvey was impressive.

Then there was Irma, which as of Sept. 6 became the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. With wind speeds estimated at 185 mph, Irma put the Hurricane Research Center's equipment to the ultimate test.

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Evolution of Testing Equipment

Two decades ago, the first order of business for the TTUHRT was to develop a meteorological observation station that could 1., be mobile enough to deploy into the path of landfalling tropical cyclones and 2., be rugged enough to hold up under the onslaught of sustained winds well over 50 mph.

From 1998 to 2011, the WEMITE #1 and WEMITE # 2 (Wind Engineering Mobile Instrument Tower Experiment) trailer-mounted towers collected wind speed and direction data from as high as 33 feet, along with temperature, barometric pressure, and relative humidity. In 2002, three portable mesonet towers (PMT) came on board. Each was a single aluminum-mast platform that could collect wind data from 33 feet high as well as standard meteorological data. They were not rugged, but were anchored with guy wires and modified mobile home anchors. All of the WEMITEs and PMTs, however, have since been retired in favor of the rapidly deployable and rugged StickNets.

The StickNet probes were designed and built entirely by students from Texas Tech's Wind Science and Engineering Program and the Atmospheric Science Group. The probes became operational in 2006 and were first deployed into the tropical cyclone environment during 2008's Hurricane Dolly.

TTUHRT currently has 24 operational StickNet probes, each standing 7.5 feet high and allowing for a greater spatial resolution of complete wind datasets from the landfall region. Eventually, the goal is to be able to deploy as many as 40 StickNets in a landfall region to obtain even more accurate data.

Ka-Band Doppler Radar Trucks at Texas Tech

A different line of technology developed in 2002 was the mobile C-Band Doppler radar: Texas Tech built two of them in partnership with the University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M University, and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Dubbed Shared Mobile Atmospheric Research and Teaching Radars (SMART-R), they were first deployed by Texas Tech during Hurricane Lili in 2002, and they are reputed to be the only two mobile C-Band Doppler radars in the world.

Then, a grant from the Texas Tech Office of the Vice President for Research allowed for the development of two Ka-band mobile Doppler radar systems. TTUKa-1 was first deployed into the tropical cyclone environment during 2009's Tropical Storm Ida. And both TTUKa-1 and TTUKa-2 participated in collecting data from 2011's Hurricane Irene.

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Don't Forget Tornadoes

The versatile KA-band Doppler radar systems and the StickNets have proven their value as research tools beyond hurricane season and into tornado season. Both TTUKa-1 and TTUKa-2 and the StickNets participated in the 2010 field phase of the VORTEX 2 tornado research project—and beyond.

Texas Tech tornado researchers include Associate Professors Christopher Weiss and Eric Bruning, and Assistant Professor Johannes Dahl, all Atmospheric Scientists in the Department of Geosciences and all involved in continuing iterations of VORTEX research, a congressionally mandated tornado hunt. VORTEX stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment.

TTU tornado researchers place a StickNet probe while a tornado touches down in the distance

Most recently, the three were awarded a total of $149,754 in August 2017 from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the research project, "NWI VORTEX-SE: Insights into the Structure and Predictability of Southeastern U.S. Tornadic Storms Afforded by Intensive Observation and High-Resolution Numerical Modeling."

This grant is the third in a series from NOAA for the VORTEX-SE project, which is working to better predict tornadoes in the American Southeast—a part of the nation where the terrain and other factors make it harder to warn of deadly tornadoes.

This past spring, A CNN news team followed Weiss as he led the TTU tornado research team in collecting two month's worth of meteorological data in what CNN termed "Dixie Alley." Weiss and company deployed several platforms, including StickNets, weather balloons, and lightning mapping array sensors.

And they weren't alone. In fact, WHNT television news station reported that meteorologists and atmospheric scientists from twenty different organizations would be on hand to study the atmosphere during severe weather events in and around Huntsville, Ala.

Weiss described Texas Tech's part in the research this way: "We're trying to improve the lead times on warnings, but we're also trying to improve the accuracy of those warnings, decrease the false alarm rate. Tornado warnings feature somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-75 percent false alarm," Weiss told WHNT. "We think there's certain kinds of information, especially in the temperature of the storm, that can help us reduce the false alarm rate especially."

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Some quotes in this report were taken from articles written by Texas Tech Today's Glenys Young and Allison Hirth.

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