The National Wind Institute team deployed 14 instrument platforms along the Texas coast.
Most college students – and faculty, for that matter – would probably love to spend the last weekend before school starts at the beach. Of course, that's assuming there's not a Category 4 hurricane barreling straight for you.
But as two researchers from the National Wind Institute (NWI) at Texas Tech University drove toward Corpus Christi last Wednesday, they knew what was then a weak Tropical Storm Harvey had the potential to become a hurricane. And if it did, they wanted to be right in the thick of it.
"As someone fascinated by weather, these types of events are really neat and interesting to me,” said Brian Hirth, a research professor with the NWI. "I have a tremendous respect and appreciation for the devastating impact they can cause. We have so much to learn still on how to make our buildings and communities more resilient to storms like Harvey. We're never rooting for this type of disaster to happen, but if it's going to, we want to be there to collect valuable measurements to advance the science.”
Armed with 14 StickNet platforms to collect wind measurements, Hirth and NWI doctoral candidate James Duncan spent Thursday and the first half of Friday scouting locations and then deploying the instruments between Mustang Island and Point Comfort with help from John Schroeder, a professor of atmospheric science, the principal investigator for the Texas Tech Hurricanes at Landfall Project and founder of the Texas Tech Hurricane Research Team. Schroeder remained in Lubbock relaying forecast updates to the team. As soon as the StickNets were in place, Hirth and Duncan headed back to Corpus Christi to ride out the storm.
"Our objective was to distribute these platforms along the coastal region that was to be most impacted by the winds of Harvey to not only capture the maximum winds within the storm, but also understand the spatial distribution of the hurricane's wind field,” Hirth said. "It's actually a considerable amount of work identifying suitable deployment locations, making sure the platforms are adequately spaced relative to the expected size and distribution of the storm's wind field, and then being flexible enough to adapt as the forecast landfall point shifts and the structure of the storm and its winds evolve.”
Even with the complexity of planning the optimum locations, the team was right on.
"The deployment itself was perfect,” Hirth said. "The center and eyewall region of Harvey moved over several of our instruments.”
The StickNets measured wind, barometric pressure, temperature and relative humidity.
Some of the older StickNets were affected by water, which compromised the wind readings, and one platform near the northern eyewall was knocked over by debris at the peak of the storm. Despite that, data gathered from Harvey was impressive.
"To our knowledge, the winds of Harvey are the strongest measured by the platforms since the StickNet program began roughly a decade ago,” Hirth said.
They knew going in that Harvey had the potential to be a strong storm.
"No two hurricanes are the same, and Harvey fit the bill,” Hirth said. "Many times, hurricanes have reached peak intensity and are weakening as they make landfall in the U.S. and enter a more hostile atmospheric environment. Atmospheric conditions surrounding Harvey were very supportive all the way up to landfall allowing for a continuous, rapid strengthening trend to a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale.”
Hirth and Duncan headed out first thing Saturday morning to retrieve the StickNets, getting half that day and half on Sunday. The longer they wait to pick them up, the more difficult it becomes as first responders and locals begin returning to the area. As soon as the last StickNets were retrieved, the pair began the long drive home.
Even though the team's hotel in northwest Corpus Christi lost power during the storm, Hirth said he never felt unsafe.
"I personally have been deploying instruments in hurricanes since 2004 and Dr. Schroeder since the late 1990s,” he said, "so the experience is very helpful.”