NASA supports FIU student research to improve hurricane prediction

Joseph Zagrodnik always wanted to be a meteorologist. The only thing the Wisconsin native didn’t know was which specialty of the field he would study.

But a University of Wisconsin spring break trip to the Gulf Coast in 2007 with Katrina Corps made the decision easy. Even two years after one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, Zagrodnik saw a region still devastated and struggling to recover. At least 1,836 people died in the storm and the flooding it caused.

“I knew then that I wanted to focus my studies on learning about the processes that led to Katrina,” he says.

So Zagrodnik enrolled as a master’s student in Florida International University’s Department of Earth & Environment, where he is searching for ways to more accurately predict the distribution of rainfall in hurricanes.

Now he and another FIU student hurricane researcher, doctoral candidate Cheng “Emmy” Tao, have been named 2011 NASA Earth and Space Science Fellows. Only 57 Earth science proposals were selected for the competitive honor from 331 applications, and Zagrodnik and Cheng are the only winners in Florida’s State University System. Each award comes with $30,000 in annual support for up to three years.

Tao’s research focuses on “hot towers” in tropical cyclones (which are called hurricanes in the Atlantic and known as typhoons in the western Pacific). Cheng grew up in Shenzhen, China, near Hong Kong, where typhoons are a yearly threat.

Hot towers are tall, dense rain clouds that stretch upward for miles and miles, at least into the lowest layer of the stratosphere. Scientists hypothesize that the release of latent heat in hot towers plays a role in the rapid intensification of hurricanes.

Enabling improved forecasting

“Emmy and Joe have picked really important areas of research,” says Haiyan Jiang, assistant professor in FIU’s Department of Earth & Environment and a mentor to both students. “It has been a big challenge for forecasters to improve the rainfall and intensity change forecasts for tropical cyclones. Their research is going to provide valuable information in that regard.”

More accurate intensity and rainfall forecasts are critically important to residents in the potential path of a storm. For example, 2011’s Hurricane Irene was forecast to hit North Carolina as a major hurricane before tracking toward New York City as a Category 1 storm. The storm actually made initial landfall as a Category 1 storm and was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached New York City. Flooding was less severe than predicted in some places that prepared extensively, yet worse in others. Vermont, for instance, experienced its worst flooding in decades.

“We think of a hurricane as a circular disk that’s moving, but the rainfall is distributed differently in each section of the storm,” Zagrodnik says. “We can observe that from space and then use that data to improve predictions of the rainfall over land so that the right areas can be evacuated and warned.”

From NASA’s Earth-observing satellites, Zagrodnik and Tao will use remote sensing data about hurricane and typhoon development in their thesis research, which will inform scientific understanding and predictive capacity, according to Ming-Ying Wei of NASA Headquarters.

“Improving our understanding and prediction of hurricane and typhoon processes is one of the high-priority research objectives in Earth science at NASA,” Wei says.  

Location, location, location

Hurricane readiness is critically important to the state of Florida, and so FIU has invested heavily in hurricane research. That concentration of expertise in the field attracted both students, they say.

“NOAA’s National Hurricane Center is literally right here at FIU,” Zagrodnik points out. “Between that, the expertise of our faculty, and FIU’s location, it just made sense to do my graduate work here.” (He earned his undergraduate degree in atmospheric science from Wisconsin.)

Tao received her bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. She says FIU offered an opportunity to pursue hurricane-related research that few Chinese universities could match.

Says Jiang, their mentor, “NASA wants to train the next generation of scientists capable of working for them. By the time Joe and Emmy graduate, they are going to be young stars shining brightly in our field.”