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UM Dedicates Cutting-Edge Facility for Hurricane and Marine Life Research

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UM Dedicates Cutting-Edge Facility for Hurricane and Marine Life Research

The $50 million Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex will help improve coastal resiliency and hurricane forecasting and look to the oceans to shed new light on how to treat human diseases.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM News


The Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. SUSTAIN Building is part of UM’s new Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex.

VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. (October 3, 2014) – It still astonishes meteorologists. In the span of just 24 hours, Hurricane Wilma, the 22nd named storm of the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, intensified from a tropical cyclone to a Category 5 hurricane—its wind speed soaring from 70 to 175 mph.

But as remarkable as Wilma’s rapid intensification was, it isn’t the only case of a storm muscling up at warp speed. As Hurricane Charley approached Florida’s west coast in 2004, its sustained winds jumped from 110 to 150 mph in only three hours. And in 2007 Felix strengthened from a meager tropical depression to a Category 5 hurricane in 51 hours.

“We don’t know completely what causes hurricanes to rapidly intensify,” said Brian Haus, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “Track forecasting has gotten better and better, but intensity forecasts have not improved, and one of the possible reasons for that is we don’t fully understand what’s happening where the ocean and atmosphere meet in really high winds.”

That could all change soon now that the Rosenstiel School has opened its Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex, a $50 million facility that houses a 38,000-gallon, 75-foot-long tank into which researchers pump seawater to study how the ocean and atmosphere interact—the critical air-sea interface that could tell us why some storms intensify so quickly.

The SUSTAIN building's centerpiece is a 38,000-gallon, 95-foot-long tank  which researchers will use to study the rapid intensification of hurricanes--still a forecasting puzzle.

The centerpiece of the SUSTAIN Building is a 38,000-gallon, 75-foot-long tank, which will be used to study the rapid intensification of hurricanes—a phenomenon forecasters often cannot predict.

Under a brief rain shower, UM officially dedicated the facility Thursday, unveiling for guests what President Donna E. Shalala called “a game changer” that will address a multitude of research initiatives, including investigations of the ocean and atmosphere, marine life, human health, and disease.

The Glassell Family Foundation supported construction of the seawater tank in the research facility, which is now officially known as the Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. SUSTAIN (Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction) Building. A $15 million stimulus grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) got the ball rolling.

“I still remember the meeting I had with faculty from Engineering and Rosenstiel,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc. “They had a vision, and we started off wondering how we would eventually pay for this facility. But we never had any doubt that we needed it.”

Shalala said the new building “is about the future—what we discover here will shape our decisions and actions.”

Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar said that “it takes literally a village to build the kind of facility we’re opening here today.” He recognized some of the many individuals who played key roles in making the facility possible, including Haus, who designed the seawater tank and helped spearhead the $15 million NIST grant that partly funded the building’s construction. Generous gifts from the Marta Weeks Family and the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation also made the building possible.

Haus is ecstatic about its opening. Among the storm-related research he said it will foster are studies on designing coastal structures to survive hurricanes, improving coastal resiliency and wave modeling, and the transfer of carbon dioxide across the air-sea interface.

“I was just at the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit in Miami Beach, and White House chief scientist John Holdren and several other people said that facing the issue of mitigation and adaptation to climate change is the grand challenge for going forward in science and policy,” said Haus. “It’s the greatest threat humanity is facing. So it’s very timely that on the day of that summit, we are opening this facility, which is focused directly on research related to improving our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

After the ribbon cutting, guests streamed into the facility by the dozens, observing the giant waves inside the SUSTAIN tank, which had been filled to almost half its 38,000-gallon capacity with a mixture of fresh and seawater. They also toured the other major component of the complex, the Marine Life Science Center, which is home to a number of labs, including the National Institutes of Health-funded Aplysia lab, billed as the only facility in the world that cultures and raises sea hares for scientific research on aging, memory, and learning.

In another lab, Ph.D. student Molly Broome briefed tour groups on how she is studying the effect of Prozac on the cardiovascular system of toadfish. She has discovered that oxygen consumption in fish treated with the drug declined, while fish that were not exposed to the drug were able to regulate and maintain stable oxygen levels. Broome said the lab is always a site of scientific discovery, noting that its principal investigator, Danielle McDonald, is investigating how oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill affects the physiology of toadfish.

In Rosenstiel School researcher Michael Schmale’s lab, Kirstie Tandberg, an undergraduate marine science and microbiology and immunology major, directed the attention of one tour group to a row of aquariums containing small damselfish, explaining that the colorful marine organisms may hold the key to understanding a disease in humans once known as Elephant Man’s Disease for its disfiguring tumors. Tandberg told the group that damselfish develop tumors similar to how humans are affected by the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis.

In still another lab, grad student Merly Ovares explained how she and other researchers are injecting artificial DNA into zebrafish to detect harmful algae blooms in aquatic environments. “It’s important work, because algae blooms can sometimes get into the drinking water,” she said, noting a recent toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that prompted a tap water ban in Toledo, Ohio.

The complex is one of only a handful of proposals funded by NIST. “We picked only the best of the best,” said Mary Saunders, NIST associate director for management resources.

Saunders recalled that NIST led a technology team to the devastated regions in the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to examine and better understand just what caused buildings and bridges to fail. “In the coastal regions and in New Orleans, we would have benefited from the data and measurements that will result from this research facility,” she said. “I firmly believe it was money well spent.”


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An Acoustic Repertoire:  Study Shows Fish Larvae Make Sounds


An Acoustic Repertoire: Study Shows Fish Larvae Make Sounds

Researchers suggest that these sounds are key to maintaining group cohesion.


Researchers discovered that gray snapper larvae produce “knocks” and “growls” in the range of 200–800 Hz, which is within the hearing range of most adult fish.

MIAMI, Fla. (October 1, 2014) – A new study from researchers at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science has documented for the first time that fish larvae produce sound. These “knock” and “growl” sounds may help small larvae maintain group cohesion in the dark.

“Although many adult fishes produce sounds, no one has previously considered that larvae, too, may be sound producers. This is the first study to show that fish larvae have an acoustic repertoire,” said Claire Paris, associate professor of ocean sciences. “This is a true discovery as it reveals the existence of a communication system for young fish larvae.”

The Rosenstiel School research team set up both field and laboratory experiments to listen to larval gray snapper, Lutjanus griseus, economically valuable fish that spend their first 30 days of life as pelagic larva before settling in shallow seagrass beds.

In the field experiment, the scientists set a drifting in situ chamber, called DISC, equipped with audio and video recording systems, near Fowey Rocks lighthouse in the northern Florida Keys to record larval orientation behavior in the pelagic environment. A total of 58 deployments were conducted, 27 during the day and 31 at night. The team also recorded sounds in a laboratory setting to confirm that the sounds heard in the field were from gray snapper larvae. The researchers also referred to the public sound archive at the Macaulay Library to compare the larval sounds to those produced by adult L. griseus.

The researchers observed that larvae produced “knocks” and “growls” in the range of 200–800 Hz, which is within the hearing range of most adult fish. The fish larvae produced these sounds during 70 percent of the nighttime trials, and none of the daytime trials. The gray snapper larvae used in the study arrived in a large group over the span of a few hours, suggesting that these acoustic signals may provide a mechanism for these larvae to maintain group cohesion during their pelagic journey.

“The study was set up to record ambient sounds around the drifting arena that might guide the fish larval orientation,” Paris said. “It was a fantastic surprise to listen to the recording and hear that the larva itself was emitting sounds. Communication between larvae could allow them to maintain group cohesion, which is critically important for faster swimming, finding navigational signals and settlement cues, and better survival during the pelagic phase.”

The paper, titled “First evidence of fish larvae producing sounds,” was published in the October 1 issue of the journal Biology Letters. In addition to Paris, the study co-authors include lead author Erica Staaterman, a Ph.D. student, and RSMAS  graduate student Andrew Kough.

“This discovery has important conservation implications as well,” Staaterman said. “As anthropogenic noise in the marine environment continues to increase, it is important to understand potential impacts on these previously undiscovered acoustic communication systems.”

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New Study Confirms Water Vapor as Global Warming Amplifier

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New Study Confirms Water Vapor as Global Warming Amplifier

Special to UM News

Color enhanced satellite image of upper tropospheric water vapor. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Color enhanced satellite image of upper tropospheric water vapor. Photo courtesy of NASA.

MIAMI, Fla. (July 28, 2014)—A new study from scientists at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and colleagues confirms rising levels of water vapor in the upper troposphere—a key amplifier of global warming—will intensify the impact of climate change over the next decades.

“The study is the first to confirm that human activities have increased water vapor in the upper troposphere,” said Brian Soden, professor of atmospheric sciences and co-author of the study. Read the full story

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Collateral Damage: Study Reveals Sharks Most Vulnerable to Commercial Fishing

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Collateral Damage: Study Reveals Sharks Most Vulnerable to Commercial Fishing


Special to UM News

MIAMI, Fla. (July 22, 2014)—A new study that examined the survival rates of 12 different shark species captured as unintentional bycatch in commercial longline fishing operations found large differences across the 12 species, with bigeye thresher, dusky, and scalloped hammerhead being the most vulnerable. Led by researchers at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, the study provides new information to consider for future shark conservation measures in the northwest Atlantic. The unintentional capture of one fish species when targeting another, known as bycatch, is one of the largest threats facing many marine fish populations.

Researchers from the University of Miami and the National Marine Fisheries Service analyzed over 10 years of shark bycatch data from western Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico tuna and swordfish longline fisheries to examine how survival rates of sharks were affected by fishing duration, hook depth, sea temperature, animal size, and the target fish. Some species, such as tiger sharks, had bycatch survival rates that exceeded 95 percent, while other species, such as night sharks and scalloped hammerheads, had significantly lower survival rates— in the 20 to 40 percent range.

“Our study found that the differences in how longline fishing is actually conducted, such as the depth, duration, and time of day that the longlines are fished, can be a major driver of shark survival, depending on the species,” said Austin Gallagher, a Rosenstiel School Ph.D. student and lead author of the study. “At-vessel mortality is a crucial piece of the puzzle in terms of assessing the vulnerability of these open-ocean populations, some of which are highly threatened.”

The researchers also generated overall vulnerability rankings of species, taking into account not only their survival, but also reproductive potential. They found that species most at risk were those with both very slow reproductive potential and unusual body features, such as hammerheads and thresher sharks. The study authors suggest that bycatch likely played an important role in the decline of scalloped hammerhead species in the northwest Atlantic, which has been considered for increased international and national protections, such as the U.S. Endangered Species List.

The researchers suggest that high at-vessel mortality, slow maturity, and specialized body structures combine for the perfect mixture to become extinction-prone.

“Our results suggest that some shark species are being fished beyond their ability to replace themselves,” said Neil Hammerschlag, research assistant professor. “Certain sharks, such as bigeye threshers and scalloped hammerheads, are prone to rapidly dying on the line once caught, and techniques that reduce their interactions with fishing gear in the first place may be the best strategy for conserving these species.”

The study, titled “Vulnerability of oceanic sharks as pelagic longline bycatch,” was published online in the open-access journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

In addition to Gallagher and Hammerschlag, from UM’s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, coauthors included Joseph Serafy and Eric Orbesen from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center.

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Study Provides New Approach to Forecast Hurricane Intensity


Study Provides New Approach to Forecast Hurricane Intensity

Brian Haus, professor of ocean sciences, co-authored the study.

Brian Haus, professor of ocean sciences, co-authored the study.

Special to UM News

MIAMI, Fla. (July 18, 2014)— New research  suggests that physical conditions at the air-sea interface, where the ocean and atmosphere meet, is a key component to improve forecast models. The study  from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science offers a new method to aid in storm intensity prediction of hurricanes.

“The general assumption has been that the large density difference between the ocean and atmosphere makes that interface too stable to effect storm intensity,” said Brian Haus, professor of ocean sciences and co-author of the study. “In this study we show that a type of instability may help explain rapid intensification of some tropical storms.”

Experiments conducted at the RSMAS Air-Sea Interaction Salt Water Tank (ASIST) simulated the wind speed and ocean surface conditions of a tropical storm. The researchers used a technique called “shadow imaging,” where a guided laser is sent through the two fluids—air and water—to measure the physical properties of the ocean’s surface during extreme winds, equivalent to a category 3 hurricane.

Using the data obtained from the laboratory experiments conducted with the support of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GOMRI) through the CARTHE Consortium, the researchers then developed numerical simulations to show that changes in the physical stress at the ocean surface at hurricane force wind speeds may explain the rapid intensification of some tropical storms. The research team’s experimental simulations show that the type of instability, known as Kelvin-Helmoltz instability, could explain this intensification.

Haus and colleagues will conduct further studies on hurricane intensity prediction in the new, one-of-a- kind Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., SUSTAIN research facility located at the UM Rosenstiel School. The SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere INteraction laboratory is the only facility capable of creating category 5-level hurricanes in a controlled, seawater laboratory. The nearly 65-foot long tank allows scientists to simulate major hurricanes using a 3-D wave field to expand research on the physics of hurricanes and the associated impacts of severe wind-driven and wave-induced storm surges on coastal structures.

The SUSTAIN research facility is the centerpiece of the new $45 million Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex at the Rosenstiel School where scientists from around the world have access to state-of-the-art seawater laboratories to conduct an array of marine-related research.

The study, titled “The air-sea interface and surface stress under tropical cyclones,” was published in the June 16 issue of the journal Nature Scientific Reports. The paper’s lead author was Alex Soloviev of the Rosenstiel School and Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center. Other coauthors include: Mark A. Donelan, from the Rosenstiel School; Roger Lukas of the University of Hawaii; and Isaac Ginis from the University of Rhode Island.

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