This article is from the In-Depth Report Hurricane Katrina's Devastating Lessons
60-Second Science

Listening In on Hurricanes

Flying a plane over a hurricane to gather data is expensive--and dangerous. Getting equivalent data, by using undersea hydrophones that record the hurricane-driven churning of the ocean may be a cheaper, safer alternative. Cynthia Graber reports

Podcast Transcript: Predicting a hurricane’s strength and speed is crucial in order to save property and lives. Right now, the only way to get accurate information is to fly a plane right into the hurricane. That’s frightening—and expensive. Now M.I.T. scientists say they’ve demonstrated a safer and cheaper method. Nicholas Makris, director of M.I.T.’s Laboratory for Undersea Remote Sensing, developed a model that uses underwater microphones. These hydrophones, as they’re called, can pick up the sound of the roiling and churning waves caused by a hurricane.

Markis hypothesized that the volume picked up by the mic is a predictor of
the hurricane’s strength and speed. He’s been doing theoretical work on this issue for years. In a paper accepted to Geophysical Research Letters, he and a graduate student show the first real-world proof of the technique. In 1999 a hurricane passed over an anchored hydrophone. Within 24 hours that hurricane was analyzed by fly-throughs. The data from the hydrophone and the information from the planes match Makris’s predictions. M.I.T. researchers are now testing the system with the Mexican Navy. They hope this will lead to permanent hydrophones in other poor, hurricane-prone regions.

—Cynthia Graber

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