News roundup: How scientists and engineers are tackling the hurricane aftermath

More than two months after hurricanes Irma and Harvey battered the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the U.S. continues to struggle with remediating the destruction.

At times like this, the world relies heavily on scientists and engineers for the brainpower and expertise needed to address the huge problems that result.

The scientific community is already credited for reducing the toll on human lives by accurately predicting where and when the storms would occur, allowing many to evacuate or take shelter well before dangerous weather arrived. Since the damage has been done, scientists and engineers have gone right back to work trying to repair the damage and learn how similar disasters can be better addressed in the future. The world’s traditional hurricane season ended Nov. 30.

Brewer Science was able to make a difference early in November by donating funds to Texas’ Aransas Pass Independent School District to replace science lab equipment damaged by the storm. BSI Scientific Computing Manager Amanda Riojas learned of the opportunity to help through contacts at the Central Texas Local Section of the American Chemical Society. 

“For millions from Houston to St. Johns, the off season will be spent rebuilding and attempting to get their lives back to normalcy,” notes Andrew Freeman on Mashable. “Meanwhile, hurricane forecasters will work to improve their techniques and computer models in time for next year.”

A sampling of other news stories describing how the scientific community took action following the storms:

  • Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, created a supercomputer-powered simulation that uses advanced physics and a state-of-the-art climate algorithm to recreate how air currents swept aerosols around the planet during hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria.
  • A new weather satellite developed by NASA will help forecasters broadcast earlier warnings about severe weather. Previous satellites could only detect lightning from low Earth orbit for short bursts of time, but the satellite known as GOES-16’s GLM can map lightning over the entire Western Hemisphere.
  • In Texas, state-of-the-art drones were able to aid scientists by mapping damage of large flooded sites far before floodwaters receded. The state-of-the-art technology used high-resolution photographs to create detailed maps and three-dimensional models of damaged areas.
  • Meteorologists collected data at the eye of the storms to understand where the most extreme winds materialize during hurricanes, and they’re now studying how the shifting temperatures, salinity and composition of the floodwaters have affected plant communities.
  • Conservationists are studying how the storms and the release of toxic chemicals in some areas have affected animal populations. For example, they’ve already noted the loss of multiple flamingos in Cuba and oyster beds near Galveston Bay, and are concerned about more than 1,500 rhesus macaques that lived on a Puerto Rican island, many of which have been helpful in autism research.
  • Finally, a team of multinational scientists is now exploring the possibility of injecting sulfate into the atmosphere to cool the earth and theoretically reduce the world’s hurricane generation by half over the next 50 years, reports NBC News.

Since more extreme weather seems a certainty in the future, much could depend on the ability of scientists to anticipate and possibly avert its worst effects. And that’s true of both global warming and the threat of severe storms.

“As more companies, governments and researchers devote themselves to the problem, the chances of big technological advances are improving,” writes Justin Gillis in the New York Times. “But even many experts who are optimistic about technological solutions warn that current efforts are not enough. People like Bill Gates have argued that crossing our fingers and hoping for technological miracles is not a strategy — we have to spend the money that would make these things more likely to happen.”

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