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5 natural disaster simulators in the US that help build stronger, more resilient communities

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

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From earthquakes and tornadoes to hurricanes and flooding, residents of the United States are no strangers to destructive and often deadly natural disasters.

These powerful phenomena not only threaten lives, but also result in billions of dollars in damage annually, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Scientists and researchers work to study these disasters to help us understand how to better protect vulnerable regions and improve resiliency. A helpful resource in investigating these disasters is through simulators.

The U.S. is home to a number of simulators that recreate the extraordinary effects of various disasters for research purposes. Below are five natural disaster simulators located at universities across the country.

Iowa State University’s tornado simulator

Iowa State University - tornado simulator

"We will try to quantify the uncertainties in estimating tornado winds and the corresponding structural damage," said Dr. Partha Sarkar of the tornado simulator he designed and built. (Photo/Iowa State University)


In 2004, Iowa State University (ISU) aerospace engineering professor Dr. Partha Sarkar designed and built the country's first moving tornado simulator to study the interaction of tornadoes with man-made structures.

Engineers use the simulator, which creates mini tornadoes as powerful as real-life EF3 twisters, to uncover how building codes, building ages, structure shapes, roof types and construction quality influence tornado damage; how internal pressures inside buildings influence tornado damage; and how the wind loads are distributed and shared by a building’s components, for example, according to a university press release.

The simulator “can create and move a tornadolike vortex back and forth over a test bed,” and Sarkar, and his team study the loads and pressures caused by laboratory storms passing over models of homes and buildings, according to ISU.

Sarkar has said that because about 90 percent of tornadoes are EF3 or less in intensity, homes that face the greatest threat from tornadoes in the U.S. should be built to withstand EF3 tornadoes and their 165-mph winds.

Florida International University’s Wall of Wind

FIU's Wall of Wind - Florida International University

The Wall of Wind Experimental Facility is located in Miami, Florida. (Photo/Florida International University)


Miami's Florida International University is home to the National Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) Wall of Wind Experimental Facility.

The Wall of Wind helps researchers better comprehend wind impacts on civil infrastructure systems as well as prevent wind hazards from escalating into community disasters.

Researchers use the 15-foot-tall device, which is powered by a 12-fan system, to conduct high-speed holistic testing in simulated hurricane wind speeds as strong as a Category 5 storm.

The goal is to see if low-rise structures and building materials can withstand the same wind forces that the structures and materials would face in a full-blown hurricane, according to the National Science Foundation.

Current Wall of Wind projects aim to “quantify and communicate hurricane risks and losses, mitigate hurricane impacts on the built environment and enhance sustainability of infrastructure,” according to the FIU College of Engineering and Computing.

Oregon State University’s Large Wave Flume and Directional Wave Basin

Directional Wave Basin - Oregon State University

Previously known as the Tsunami Wave Basin, the Directional Wave Basin was designed to understand the fundamental nature of tsunami inundation, tsunami-structure impact and to improve the numerical tools for tsunami mitigation. (Photo/Oregon State University's O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory)


Both of these wave-generating machines, housed at Oregon State University (OSU), were designed for testing of storm (including hurricane) waves, tsunamis and overland flooding and the consequences to the natural and built environment, according to Dr. Pedro Lomonaco, director of the university’s O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory.

“[We] study how the waves and tsunamis propagate to the coast; the forces on coastal structures and buildings; and how we can prevent, mitigate and assess the damage to those structures, making coastal communities more resilient,” Lomonaco told AccuWeather, adding that the machines are part of the National Science Foundation’s experimental facilities of the NHERI Program.

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“[The Large Wave Flume and Directional Wave Basin] are capable of reproducing, at a large-scale, the wave and water level conditions found in the ocean and at the coast by constructing a physical representation of the sea bottom, as well as the different coastal infrastructures,” said Lomonaco. “We install different types of instruments depending on the specific scientific questions that need to be answered, set the water level accordingly and with our wave machines, we generate the storm waves or tsunami waves that will propagate and hit the structures.”

University of Miami’s SUSTAIN Laboratory

SUSTAIN Laboratory - University of Miami

The Alfred C. Glassell Jr. SUSTAIN Laboratory aims to address a significant gap in the existing research infrastructure available to support the development of disaster resistant and resilient coastal communities. (Photo/University of Miami)


The Surge Structure Atmosphere Interaction Facility, or SUSTAIN Laboratory, is uniquely capable of generating directional waves combined with direct wind forcing, according to the University of Miami (UM).

Inside the lab, a clear acrylic tank that holds 38,000 gallons of seawater and measures 75 feet long, 19 feet wide and 6-and-a-half feet high can stir up Category 5 hurricane-force conditions, all propelled by a 1,700-horsepower fan. It's the world's largest hurricane simulator.

One of lab’s key areas of focus for hurricane and disaster resilience is on hurricane forecasting, according to Dr. Brian K. Haus, professor of ocean sciences and director of the SUSTAIN Laboratory in UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

“By making [certain] measurements, which are extremely difficult to make in real hurricanes, we can help the forecast models do a better job of getting the intensity right,” Haus told AccuWeather.

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