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Hurricane Florence is coming. Scientists are scrambling to prepare

A state of emergency has been declared for much of the United States’s mid-Atlantic seaboard as Hurricane Florence, a swirling spiral more than 550 kilometers wide with winds gusting to more than 225 kilometers per hour, churns toward the coast. Florence is expected to cause life-threatening flooding as it makes landfall on Friday, and 1.5 million people in the Carolinas and Virginia have already been ordered to board up their homes and flee.

Researchers at the universities and government facilities in Florence’s predicted path are bracing for the storm. Some are scrambling to protect sensitive samples against power outages and secure expensive instruments from winds and floods. Others are rushing to deploy new experiments to collect as many data as possible before, during, and after the hurricane.

ScienceInsider will be tracking how Hurricane Florence affects the research community. Tell us your story—or send us a tip about a story you think we should be covering—by emailing, or tweeting to @ScienceInsider.

Here are some snapshots of how scientists up and down the coast are getting ready for what experts say could be one of the most consequential storms to strike the mid-Atlantic region in more than a century.

What do whales do in a hurricane?

At the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, researchers are pulling small research vessels out of the water, and helping students collect as many data as possible if their in-water experiments are likely to be destroyed by the storm, says lab director Andrew Read. “One of our Ph.D. students has been using exclosures [barriers that exclude animals from study areas] to look at the effects of large rays and small sharks on the structure of seagrass ecosystems,” Read says. “She’ll probably lose most of her exclosures in the storm.”

But the hurricane is also providing research opportunities. For instance, Florence could provide a chance to understand how whales behave in the middle of a hurricane. Duke researchers have previously tagged deep-diving whales and will be monitoring their movements via satellite. And Read says Duke microbiologist Dana Hunt is planning a posthurricane study that will examine how bacteria living in waters inside North Carolina's barrier islands respond to the expected massive influx of saltwater from the storm surge, followed by a huge pulse of fresh water from the rain.

At The Duke Forest, a 2800-hectare forested site operated by the university near Durham, North Carolina, staff have been helping researchers either secure or remove their equipment, says Sara Childs, the forest’s director. Air-quality monitors on 30-meter-high towers have been removed, she says, and those at ground level in open fields were fastened more securely.

Saving “precious samples”

Heather Patisaul, a professor of toxicology at North Carolina State University (NC State) in Raleigh, sat her research group down this week to make a list of their “most precious samples,” so they could figure out which of the animal tissues used in multiyear studies should be moved to freezers with backup power supplies. Patisaul told her doctoral students to put a priority on anything absolutely essential for their dissertation projects. 

“I'm also going to have at least two coolers of dry ice at home,” Patisaul says. “So, if our freezers go down, at the very least I can get into campus with those coolers and get our most precious samples on dry ice.” The researchers have also moved computers, microscopes, and tissue-slicing equipment away from windows and off of floors.

Ann Ross, a professor of forensic anthropology at NC State, says her lab is taking special precautions to store the human and animal bones they are now examining in their evidence lockers. Because the lab is certified to assist North Carolina law enforcement agencies in their forensic casework, Ross says she’s most concerned about maintaining her lab’s security if the power goes out, which is crucial for assuring an unbroken chain of custody.

“It just isn’t worth it”

David Eggleston, director of NC State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, spent all day Tuesday in a truck towing a boat, which he and his team used to retrieve water-based instruments from eight study sites. “It’s always a trade-off between collecting data during the storm and losing equipment,” Eggleston says. The team “rolled the dice with Hurricane Irma” last year and ended up losing a number of expensive sensors, he says.

This year they aren’t taking any chances. They are pulling up all their hydrophones, the underwater microphones they use to track fish by listening for their grunts and clicks. Olivia Caretti, one of Eggleston’s doctoral students and the truck’s driver, was using the data to create a soundscape of marine ecosystems.

A different team retrieved 15 signal receivers for a second fish-tracking experiment looking at cobia, striped bass, and endangered sturgeon. “It’s tough to make the call, knowing you’ll lose several weeks of data,” Eggleston says. “But we took a look at the size and strength of Florence and said: ‘It just isn’t worth it.’”

A surge of gauges

Researchers from four universities are getting ready for Florence by installing wave gages—pressure sensors that can help scientists model the height and shape of storm waves—on buildings in the hurricane’s path. The team installed five gauges in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, earlier this week, and plans to install five more gauges (some of which had to be express mailed from Wisconsin) on nearby Topsail Island.

Spencer Rogers, a coastal construction expert at NC State’s North Carolina Sea Grant (NCSG), a collaborative research program involving several colleges, is leading the team, which also includes researchers from the University Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana; and the University of North Carolina in both Wilmington and Chapel Hill. Rogers says the researchers are most interested in looking at how buildings are affected by the hurricane’s storm surge, waves, and erosion impact, as well as creating better models of storm surge.

Crews from the U.S. Geological Survey, meanwhile, are installing more than 190 temporary storm-tide sensors and water level gauges in the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. Known as rapid deployment gauges, they are designed to augment the agency’s network of permanent instruments and can be quickly installed on bridges and piers. They will provide real-time information on water levels to the government agencies coordinating emergency responses. The storm-tide sensors will collect information on changes to ocean tides caused by the hurricane and can help emergency responders plan for current damage while improving forecasting models for future storms. 

Barbara Doll, a water quality and protection specialist at NCSG, is also planning to collect data on the expected extreme inland flooding near the North Carolina coast for an ongoing project with the state’s Department of Transportation. The goal is to develop an early warning system to alert officials to close roads ahead of deadly flooding around the Neuse and Cashie rivers.

Watching the storm, in real time

Researchers and others looking to monitor the storm in real time can turn to a web portal run by the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA) in Charleston, South Carolina. The group, one of 11 ocean monitoring programs led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be collecting and displaying as much Hurricane Florence information as it can through its online data portal, says Debra Hernandez, SECOORA’s executive director.

There are live video feeds from seven beaches on the east coast, weather buoys reporting coastal wind speed, and a high-frequency radar network showing the real-time direction and speed of the hurricane. Hernandez says she and her research partners have some “severe worries” about the safety of their measurement tools out in the field, as the process to get federal funding to replace and repair damaged equipment it is often a lengthy one. They are still waiting on funds to replace some sensors that were lost last year during Hurricane Irma.

NOAA and academic researchers are also involved in an effort to use several torpedo-shaped, robotic deep-sea gliders to study the hurricane. The automated vehicles are hardy enough to continue collecting data throughout the storm, says Catherine Edwards, a glider researcher at the University of Georgia’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in Savannah. Two gliders are now moving up and down through the water column near the storm, gathering information on salinity and temperature, and providing researchers with a glimpse of what’s going on beneath the surface. “There’s growing recognition that subsurface data is really important for getting ocean predictions correct,” Edwards says.