Bracing for Mother Nature's Wrath

How new technologies are helping us prepare for the upredictable.


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Photo Credits: Photo by Carlye Calvin, NCAR/UCAR

Drought can strike virtually any region, and studies have shown that it affects more people than any other type of natural disaster.

It wipes out crops, spurs wildfires, dries up water sources, and sickens or even kills people through associated heat waves. This photo shows the effects from drought in Colorado on Lake Granby.

Predicting where and when droughts may occur can help farmers know what to plant, when to plant and where to plant. Drought forecasts also help them to plan irrigation more efficiently. To provide farmers with near-real time drought information, NSF-funded researchers developed the Global Integrated Drought Monitoring and Prediction System (GIDMaPs). The tool is also available as a smartphone app, GIDMaPs Mobile.

Photo Credits: Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego

In the glow of moonlight and floodlight, the world’s largest outdoor shake table stands ready to assess a 1.2 meter-diameter bridge column as 250 tons bear down on it. Test conditions simulate various earthquake ground motions, including those demanding extreme flexibility.

A resource for NSF-funded researchers around the nation since 2004, the shake table, based at the University of California, San Diego, can replicate ground motions of most of the world’s largest earthquakes. This resource allows testing of innovative technologies and designs for seismic safety of new buildings and retrofitting techniques for existing structures. The goal of the work is to create structures that both protect people and remain viable after an earthquake.

Photo Credits: RAPID Facility, University of Washington

Laser scanners provide detailed damage assessments of a home hit by a rockfall during the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake. These reviews help investigators understand the factors that enhance resiliency of homes and other structures.

The Rapid Experimental Facility based at the University of Washington houses the scanning equipment and other tools that reconnaissance teams will use when they deploy to natural hazard sites to perform aftermath surveys. The data gathered will improve mathematical models used to predict the amount of damage buildings, bridges, levees and other key infrastructure might suffer during storms and earthquakes of various sizes.

Photo Credits: Visualization by Advanced Visualization Lab (D. Cox, R. Patterson, S. Levy, A. Christensen, K. Borkiewicz, J. Carpenter) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois

Solar superstorms may occur 93 million miles away from Earth, but they pose a real threat to our daily routines. Not only would nearly all forms of commerce and communication experience interruptions, the power grid would take a hit. Depending on the storm’s size, recovery could take up to two years.

Based on actual solar data, visualizations like this one—showing how solar plasma warps the Earth’s magnetic field—give researchers a better understanding of how such events occur.

NSF has a long history of advancing research that helps the nation improve its preparation, response and recovery from catastrophic events and will continue to pursue this work to ensure the nation stays safe.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Scot Landolt, NCAR

Enhanced snowfall through cloud seeding benefits farmers, skiers and snowmobilers, fish and wildlife, and most notably, hydroelectric plants that rely primarily on melting snow to generate power.

Between January and March 2017, these snow gauges, operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, measured how much snow fell in and around the Payette Basin, 50 miles north of Boise, Idaho. They are part of SNOWIE, an NSF-funded project to study whether cloud seeding increases snowfall. The SNOWIE project also helps scientists understand the natural processes involved in a winter storm. Findings could provide new insights into the role cold-season precipitation plays in droughts and water shortages in the western U.S.

Photo Credits: Jacob DeFlitch, Meteorologist

Nature’s original power source, a lightning bolt, contains up to a billion volts of electricity. For those living on the Great Plains, nighttime thunderstorms, chock full of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes, are more common than daytime storms. An essential source of summer rain for crops, these storms also pose a potential hazard due to excessive rainfall and lightning.

To understand the causes of these stormy nights, researchers from the Plains Elevated Convection at Night project used aircraft, Doppler radar and other equipment to collect data in the upper atmosphere, the preferred mixing bowl for nighttime storms. This data provide critical information to improve heavy rainfall forecasts.

Photo Credits: Pete Mouginis-Mark, University of Hawaii

The power of hurricanes Irma and Harvey as well as the 8.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico demonstrate the critical need for well-planned readiness, response and recovery efforts. To mark National Preparedness Month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) gathered the following images, which are just a few of the many research efforts underway to learn more about natural hazards. These projects generate new tools to help lessen the effects of these unpredictable events.

On the left, a ''lava skylight'' at Kilauea, on the big island of Hawaii, gives a glimpse inside the most studied volcano in the world. For over 30 years, Kilauea has pumped out lava, resting only for a month in 1997. Long-term studies have shown that minerals in the lava provide a fingerprint of a volcano’s inner workings. Analysis of these minerals can play an important role in improving eruption predictions.

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Photo Credits: Boonleng Cheong, University of Oklahoma

Flying debris is the main threat to life when tornadoes strike. However, identifying that debris on current weather radar is difficult.

Now, a first-of-its-kind radar simulator, developed at the University of Oklahoma, offers a new tool to help forecasters and meteorologists spot tornadic debris on radar. The debris field also provides a more precise way to pinpoint a tornado’s location. By recognizing the scattering characteristics of objects such as leaves (green), shingles (magenta) and boards, forecasters can generate more accurate warnings and reduce emergency personnel response times to affected areas.

Photo Credits: Florida International University

These powerful turbines are part of the 12-fan Wall of Wind (WoW) located at Florida International University in Miami. Each 6 foot-tall fan supplies 700 horsepower and allows researchers to test different wind directions combined with wind-driven rain, an important variable when assessing infrastructure weaknesses that occur during hurricanes.

This is the nation’s first academic research facility able to simulate Category 5 hurricane winds. Recommendations based on WoW research altered the 2010 Florida building code to decrease the likelihood of sheared roofs and rooftop equipment.

Photo Credits: Photo by Patrick Cullis, NCAR/UCAR

In 2010, Fourmile Canyon in the Boulder, Colorado, foothills experienced a wildfire that after a week consumed 6,181 acres and 169 homes—the most expensive blaze in the state’s history. To help firefighters battle these kinds of intense events, NSF-funded scientists recently traveled inside several wildfires to gather data.

Their findings suggest that wildfires create their own weather. As the blaze burns, it generates updrafts that cool and condense, forming fluffy cumulus clouds. This activity can create strong winds, lightning and even rain. These effects can travel up to a mile from the fire. Improved understanding of wildfire plume behavior will help firefighters determine where a fire is likely to spread.

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