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Assistant Professor Jennifer Collins has flown with the NOAA
Hurricane Hunters.

USF Weather Center explores natural disasters

TAMPA, Fla. -- As a child, Jennifer Collins remembers flicking on the television in her home in England one October evening to hear a BBC weatherman dismiss rumors that a hurricane would be sweeping the country and assured viewers the weather would be fine. It was the eve of her 12th birthday, and a big party was planned.

The weatherman was, of course, wrong.

The Great Storm of 1987 was the worst storm to hit the United Kingdom in more than 300 years, with hurricane-force gusts downing some 15 million trees, killing 18 and leaving streets and country lanes in tatters. While technically not a hurricane, the storm’s hurricane-force winds ruined her birthday party nonetheless.

But in that disaster, Collins fascination with big storms was born. And now when tropical cyclones churn, the barometric pressure goes haywire, thick fog blankets a region and the tornadoes rage, Collins and a team of researchers and students at the USF Weather Center are on the frontlines of understanding the world’s violent weather.

As an assistant professor of geography who oversees the USF Weather Center, Collins’ research is helping deconstruct mysterious weather patterns and honing in on what prompts hurricane activity in various parts of the world. Their work is slowly chipping away at misconceptions about hurricanes, including what constitutes an “active” or “quiet” season, such as the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season that ended Tuesday.

Residents along vulnerable coastal areas might have dismissed this season as not much to worry about because so few storm systems made landfall in the United States. But in fact, Collins said, the 19 named storms that occurred during the 2010 season was in fact a very active season and part of perhaps a 20 to 30-year period of more frequent hurricane activity.

If it seemed like a quiet season, it belies the fact that the number of named storms was more than twice the long-term average and the five major hurricanes is much higher than the average of two, noted David Roache, a Ph.D. student studying with Collins and part of the USF Weather Center.

“We’ve not seen that many landfalls this year, so there’s a little bit of a misconception about the level of activity there was,” Collins said. “But just because the landfalls didn’t happen in the United States, doesn’t mean hurricanes weren’t occurring and landfalls weren’t happening elsewhere.”

Hurricanes are a major part, but not the only focus of the USF Weather Center, and not their only challenge in a world where the climate and weather conditions seem to have gone haywire. Collins’ work has ranged from understanding climate change in South America and Africa to understanding the 2008 fog disaster along Interstate 4 that lead to a deadly pileup.

Hurricanes, though, remain a major focus for Collins. And it’s the mysterious minutiae of the monster storms that dominate their focus.

Rather than looking just at the number of storms, Collins and the Weather Center are looking inside the storms: examining the intensity of hurricanes, their duration and their track as factors that shed light on the complex climate conditions. Their goal is to provide a more accurate means of predicting storm development, track and landfall as well as understand how changing global climate conditions might affect storm activity.

Collins said research focus, when it comes to hurricanes, is on a pair of big questions concerning how hurricane activity varies from year to year, and how hurricane intensity can be better understood and forecasted.

Collins hopes that an accurate picture of the world’s storm patterns will help home and business owners make better decisions on how to protect their lives and property and give emergency managers better information on which to develop more comprehensive response systems.

The United States may only be half way through the 20 to 30-year period of more frequent hurricane activity, Collins said, which not only leaves plenty of time to adjust building codes and hurricane response plans, but also makes investment in protecting the coastline still necessary, she said.

“I wouldn’t let your guard down,” she warns.

Collins came to USF in 2005, after stints at universities in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and having earned her Ph.D. from University College London. She also serves as president of the West Central Florida Chapter of the American Meteorological Society, Director of the Climate Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers and is a member of the National Weather Association’s Specialized Operations Committee on Tropical Cyclones.

Collins’ interest in weather also pays tribute to her grandfather, a British engineer who played a role in the development of radar during World War II. Professor Emeritus Leonard Lewin was a member of the Admiralty Signals Establishment, where he worked on radar and antenna design through the war and went on to hold more than 40 patents during a long career.

“I’ve always been interested in hazards,” Collins said. “My grandfather used to joke whenever I walked into a room: ‘The hurricane has landed.’”

Having been drawn to Florida for its standing as storm central following the prolific 2004 season, the understanding of what drives storm development is becoming clearer through Collins and the Weather Center’s work.

In recent publications, Collins and her students have focused on the large-scale climatic patterns such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and Madden Julian Oscillation, which are factors in seasonal and intraseasonal patterns of tropical cyclone activity respectively in multiple oceanic basins.

In one recent groundbreaking work, Collins found that there is a pattern between hurricane activity in two seemingly unconnected regions -- one in the Northeast Pacific and one in the North Atlantic.

While previous scientists had not found a significant connection between those two regions of the world in hurricane activity, Collins’ 2010 paper published in the spring edition of Southeastern Geographer turned that concept upside down. Her analysis found that when the Northeast Pacific basin is divided into two sub-regions -- divided east and west near Hawaii -- activity in the western region could be negatively correlated with North Atlantic storms.

The findings suggests a new level of global interconnectedness in storm development -- a complicated scenario that depends on the El Niño phenomenon and sea surface temperatures -- that now give scientists a new way to predict seasonal activity. An active season in the western sub-region of the Pacific equates to a less active North Atlantic season, and vice verse.

The mechanism suggests that through a slackening of the trade winds during an El Nino, when the system’s warm pool of water spreads eastward and northward in the Eastern North Pacific. When higher sea surface temperatures result in increases in relative humidity, the frequency of storms increases in the Northeast Pacific western region, the research found. The same El Niño conditions in the Atlantic produce vertical wind shear, which inhibits storm development.

Given that the northeast Pacific cyclone season starts earlier than the North Atlantic’s, the new understanding might allow scientists to develop more pinpointed forecasts, even as a complete understanding of what drives storm development and intensity remains elusive. ?

“The best we can do is get a good understanding of storms so we can improve our forecasts as much as possible,” she said.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Geography, Environment, and Planning Research School of Social Sciences  
Author: Vickie Chachere