Photo of Hurricane Dorian, taken from the International Space Station in September of 2019.

Preparing for Category 6 hurricanes, a new facility will test winds of 200 mph and storm surge

Photo of Hurricane Dorian, taken from the International Space Station in September of 2019.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the weekly weather newsletter, which releases every Monday. You can sign up here to receive these every week and during significant storms.

CNN  — 

I lived and worked in Miami for four years before coming to Atlanta to join CNN. I’ve visited the Wall of Wind on the Florida International University (FIU) campus many times.

It is a wall of enormous fans inside a big warehouse-type building that can blow air up to 160 mph, which would be a Category 5 hurricane, to test infrastructure and research the power of wind.

The 12-fan Wall of Wind at Florida International University, one of the experimental facilities in National Science Foundation's Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure, that better enables engineering against tornadoes, hurricanes and other windstorms.

However, in our changing climate, sadly, 160 mph isn’t strong enough. So, the National Science Foundation (NSF) just awarded a $12.8 million grant to FIU’s Extreme Events Institute for the design of a full-scale testing facility capable of producing winds of 200 mph, along with a water basin to simulate storm surge and wave action in extreme winds.

FIU will be able to build a house under the current building codes, start up the fans and see if it can withstand 200 mph winds. Will the roof detach? Will the house still be standing at all?

The water basin will look like an enormous pool. It will also be able to simulate different coastlines. Storm surge tends to be worse when the coastlines are more shallow like along the Florida Panhandle. The facility will be able to simulate all of it.

“If you think about trying to future-proof, a changing hazard environment, a hazard scape, the US hazard scape with climate change, the past is not much of a guide. In fact, it can be deceiving,” said Dr. Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute at FIU. “So, if we’re going to future-proof, we need to be able to research and test what future hazard events will look like. You can’t future-proof in a changing environment if you’re looking backwards.”

Tropical cyclones are getting stronger

It’s true. Climate change is showing us storms are getting stronger, moving slower and are holding more water than ever before. They are also rapidly intensifying, meaning the winds are increasing at least 35 mph in a 24-hour period. In 2021, five hurricanes in the Atlantic rapidly intensified. And in 2020, TEN Atlantic hurricanes rapidly intensified. Dorian was one of those storms.

“Dorian in 2019 is the one that totally got my attention,” said Olson. “It hit 185 mph over the Bahamas, and until the last day and a half, it was heading straight up Eighth Street in Miami.”

Dorian ended up causing mass destruction across Abaco and Grand Bahama.