New weather probe wants to collect data when hurricanes hit land


If a major hurricane targets the North Carolina coast in the near future, you may see some people – instead of nailing themselves up and evacuating – walking to the beach with some strange looking contraption in preparation for the storm’s arrival.

No, not THAT guy (Jim Cantore) and his crew at The Weather Channel who really aren’t welcome in many hurricane areas unless he’s on vacation.

That would be researchers, and they would be armed with some engineering marvel straight out of Star Wars, or even out of the Pentagon’s arsenal.

The Sentinel, a long-legged probe full of scientific instruments that looks a bit like a giant praying mantis, is designed to provide scientists and researchers with meteorological and hydrological data on a hurricane landing. This information, including real-time storm surge and wind speeds, has often been difficult for scientists and engineers to obtain when it hits land due to the uncertainty of where a storm hits land and the destructive power of the hurricane on many marine meteorological stations – even though this is often the case when that data is needed most.

Even storms that are not as strong as Hurricane Isaias, which hit Brunswick County as a Category 1 storm in August 2020, can cause significant wind and storm surge damage if on land.

For local emergency management and government officials, the monitoring station would also provide real-time reports – perhaps even with a video feed – of how their communities are doing as they are being impacted by Mother Nature’s most powerful and dangerous weather system.

Dr. Forrest Masters, professor of civil engineering and an expert in wind technology at the University of Florida, designed the Sentinel monitoring station.

“Much of the observation resources we have now work well for daily weather reporting,” he said. “But when they lose performance in conjunction with the other effects that these strong storms can bring, they often don’t work as well.

Legs that can protrude nearly 20 feet into the ground are used to secure the Sentinel, which will be installed on the beach between the dune line and the high tide mark. The instruments are then used at the foot of the weather station and at the top of the more than 9-meter-long carbon fiber mast

The station is designed to withstand 16-foot breaking waves and remain submerged in water more than a dozen feet deep. The deep leg rests should also help keep it standing on several feet of beach scrubbing.

Oak Island is one of the coastal communities where the Sentinel mobile weather station could be deployed if the beach town of Brunswick County were exposed to the threat of a major hurricane.  STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

Masters, who said the new stations were based on nearly two decades of data collection amid hurricanes on land, said the plan is to place sentinels about 5 to 5 miles apart when the strongest part of the storm hits the Gulf or Atlantic coast approaching.

In North Carolina, Spencer Rogers, an offshore engineering specialist with NC Sea Grant, is busy obtaining permission from property owners and local governments, as well as the necessary state permits to use the stations when needed. So far, eight locations along the NC coast have been approved or are in the planning stage, and more are in the works.

Rogers said the sentinel station data could dramatically help engineers and scientists understand exactly why and how structures fail.

“It’s not much new science as to why something falls apart or stays up when a storm comes,” he said. “What we don’t know very well are the conditions that cause this.”

Legs would secure Sentinel deep in the shoreline, while the station's main probe would be extended upwards.  The weather station would be placed between the dune line and the high tide mark.

But timing matters – and being in the right place at the right time.

“These storms can be huge,” Masters said of severe hurricanes. “But the strongest winds and storm surges and often most of the damage only occur in a small area. That’s where we want to be. “

So will it work?

Masters admits that nothing like this has ever been attempted before.

“It’s a high risk, a high reward,” he said, “and people realize that this is very difficult. But we specialize in doing difficult things so they are open to us trying to do it and see if we can get it done. “

One of the US $ 50,000 mobile stations, funded by various public and private sources, is almost complete, and more are in the works in Gainesville.

More:PHOTOS: Oak Island repairs damage after Hurricane Isaias

Rogers knows that while technological advancements in recent years have helped greatly improve weather forecasters’ ability to predict the route of a hurricane, it still sucks where a storm will hit land.

“Yes, it’s uncertainty, and yes, we’re going to miss a lot,” he said. “But sooner or later we will get good data.”

Boats are stacked at Southport Marina on August 4, 2020 in Southport NC after Hurricane Isaisas landed overnight.

In a world of climate change expected to bring more frequent and stronger storms to the coast, Masters and Rogers said knowing what works and what doesn’t could be critical to protecting people and property – and enabling communities to rebuild smarter and safer.

“That’s just one more reason why we should take a closer look at the data and see how and if it changes over time,” said Rogers. “But even if there wasn’t climate change, we still need the data and a good way to check the status of our build quality and confirm that our building codes are in pretty good shape.”

Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached on Twitter at [email protected] or @GarethMcGrathSN. This story was produced with financial support from the 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network retains full editorial control over the work.

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