CLIMATEWIRE | Category 6 hurricanes don’t exist on paper. The wind scale used by meteorologists tops out at Category 5, representing storms with sustained winds of 157 mph or more.

But researchers at Florida International University plan to create a Category 6 storm in a lab, mimicking conditions they expect to see as climate change drives more extreme weather.

The university, which is also home to the National Hurricane Center, is coordinating a team of international experts to design what will be one of the world’s most advanced hurricane simulators, one that can simultaneously produce real-world extreme conditions from wind, rain and storm surge.

The complex will be known as NICHE for “National Full-Scale Testing Infrastructure for Community Hardening in Extreme Wind, Surge and Wave Events.” It will allow experts to study the house-splintering power of 200 mph winds — or what some would call a Category 6 storm, though it doesn’t appear on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

The complex will also simulate storm surges of up to 20 feet — a height reached by only eight named storms, according to NOAA data — and rainfall reminiscent of the 50 inches Hurricane Harvey dropped on Houston.

“Climate change is fueling more intense and more dangerous storms, and cutting-edge research and testing capabilities are clearly needed to meet the nation’s evolving risks,” Richard Olson, director of FIU’s Extreme Events Institute, said earlier this year when announcing the design phase of the simulator.

The facility’s design, expected to take four years, is funded by a $12.8 million National Science Foundation grant. When built, it could be the most advanced storm simulator in the world, allowing experts and policymakers to make more informed recommendations and decisions about building codes and infrastructure standards in hurricane zones.

Erik Salna, associate director for education and outreach at the International Hurricane Research Center, also housed at FIU, said NICHE goes further than other simulators — including FIU’s own Wall of Wind facility, which produces 157 mph winds.

“It advances this whole area of resilience by incorporating more than one [hurricane] hazard,” Salna said. “It will be able to show what are those multiple effects on the built environment from big, complex storms.”

The center will also boost FIU’s research muscle on hurricanes, where it has been a leader since the 1990s, after Hurricane Andrew raked across South Florida, killing 35 and displacing up to 250,000 people whose homes were destroyed by Category 5 winds.

Officials say FIU envisions a comprehensive NICHE facility “capable of simulating the combined effects of extreme winds, storm surge, waves, and overland water flows on buildings, water and energy systems, roads, bridges, and other key infrastructure.”

The facility will host scientists not just from FIU but also from eight other research institutions: the University of Florida; Georgia Tech; Oregon State University; Stanford University; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; the University of Notre Dame; Colorado State University; and Wayne State University.

Experts say research on the rising destructive power of hurricanes is critically important given the recent trend of multiple large storms making U.S. landfall. Three of the busiest hurricane seasons on record in the United States occurred since 2000, according to NOAA data, with six hurricanes landfalling in the years 2004, 2005 and 2020.

While Category 5 storms remain rare, it’s important to characterize hurricanes in ways that go beyond the 1971 Saffir-Simpson scale, said Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which operates one of the world’s most advanced wind simulators at its research center in South Carolina.

Climate change is making storms more nuanced and less predictable, she said, noting that a Category 1 storm can be far more destructive than the scale suggests, if it moves slowly over a populated area and packs large volumes of rain.

Recent hurricanes, like last year’s Hurricane Ida, have killed dozens and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage in coastal zones and inland areas that experience spin-off storms and flooding from extreme rainfall.

“One thing that really excites me about this facility is the opportunity to look at [hurricane impacts] at the community scale,” Cope said.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.