Whenever a hurricane threatens the U.S. or our close neighbors, we look to the National Hurricane Center for predictions of where it will go and how strong it will be, predictions based on techniques and models developed by experts in places like Miami, New Orleans, Charleston, and State College.
What happens when a hurricane makes landfall and brings with it a deluge of deadly water? The storm surge in a hurricane is arguably the greatest threat to lives and one that is often ignored.
Brent Yarnal, professor of geography in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, researches the vulnerability of coastal communities to contemporary hurricane storm surge and the role of our rising sea level in increasingly destructive storms. Are there ways to rebuild the shoreline’s natural defenses against hurricanes and flooding? Can coastal communities prevent catastrophic damage to people and property?
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Centre Daily Times as an installment of the paper’s Focus on Research column. Focus on Research highlights research projects and topics being explored across all disciplines at Penn State. Each column features the work of a different researcher.
As a winter-lover, I consider myself lucky to be a meteorologist. I do not need to wait until the third week of December to kick off winter. Meteorological winter is a three-month period that begins on Dec. 1 and runs until the end of February. Once December begins, central Pennsylvanians are set to get strapped into the 90-day weather roller coaster that lies ahead. On a theme park roller coaster, after the thrilling ups and downs, eventually you need to end up back where you started. The winter weather roller coaster doesn’t always work that way. This winter is a very good example of us not making it back to the starting position we call “average.”
The researchers report in the current issue of Science that the key to this discrepancy may lie in how climate science is being taught in schools. Science teachers are offering lessons in climate science, it seems, but their own values and knowledge may be causing a mixed message for students.
Today it is overcast, but not raining. At least not yet. It’s Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts time, and in my experience it is either blisteringly hot or we experience torrential downpours during this week in summer, but the weather forecast for the weekend looks good.
Not so the past three weeks. We’ve been hit with rain nearly every day. One day it hailed. The ground is saturated and people who have never had water in their basements do now. On some days I’ve been soaked from head to foot up to three times. And it hasn’t been just the rain. Even when it is not raining the temperatures have been on the high side for State College and the humidity has been very high, sometimes in the 80 and 90 percent range without rain. It’s not unusual to start down a road only to find it closed due to temporary flooding.
July is usually one of our rainiest months, but this year has been unusual. The normal range of jokes is circulating. Checking for webbing between ones feet and mold just about everywhere. But clothes dry; unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, humans don’t melt in the rain; and better weather is on the way. No harm no foul, right?
Not true. Certainly farmers are complaining because they can’t get into their fields and home owners have soggy lawns to mow with weeds that grow a mile a minute. However, other aspects of the humid, hot weather are not always considered.
I was interviewing a researcher the other day about a materials formation process. A method that will make perfectly spherical micron sized balls. During the interview I asked lots of questions about the material, its uses and production. We were just about finished with the interview when the researcher said, “Well, you know, with this weather, my graduate students have not been able to produce any material in the past two weeks.”
Even in a brand new, fully air-conditioned building, the systems could not keep up with the humidity. This particular method needs dry air in order to produce the uniformly sized spheres. During this past rainy period, the humidity was just too high to produce them. Inside, in a laboratory, the weather was retarding the progress of research.
This certainly isn’t the only research being done on campus suffering from the extremely high moisture content in our air. A vast majority of things won’t dry in this humidity, even inside. Some chemical reactions are affected. Anything that is supposed to be anhydrous — without water — is going to have too much moisture and anything that is hydroscopic — water loving or water attracting — is also going to have too much moisture.
However, not only is science and technology research impaired by the humidity, but other areas of scholarship also suffered. Paint won’t dry, ceramics retain water and paper becomes damp and unusable. Baking a cake or doing anything with sugar or honey becomes difficult because sugar and honey are hydroscopic and draw more moisture into the food than required. So, at least some food science research must be put on hold.
Two to three weeks does not seem like a very long time, but if you are a graduate student trying to finish research to defend your dissertation by a certain date, those three weeks could mean the difference between graduating in August or graduating in December.
Besides, while everyone is uncomfortable in the weather we have just had, the researchers suffering from too much moisture in the air have the additional inconvenience of not being able to do what they do best — move the frontier of science and technology just that much further along.