AUSTIN (KXAN) — This year has seen some historic hurricanes, resulting in billions of dollars in damage. At Texas Tech, researchers are on the front line of these hurricanes. They’re deploying special technology to study wind in the storms and how that wind damages buildings.

Meteorologist Kristen Currie spoke with Brian Hirth from the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech to learn more about the research.

You can read the transcript below or watch the edited conversation above to learn more.

CURRIE: Brian, let’s talk about this. You guys do a lot of research specifically, you know, the winds with a hurricane. So tell me, what is it like? What do you do when it comes to studying hurricanes?

HIRTH: So when people think of Texas Tech located in West Texas, it’s hard to imagine that we have a hurricane program. But in reality, Texas Tech has been deploying instrumentations into hurricanes for over 20 years now.

We have developed over the years different instrumentation platforms that we take to the coast when a hurricane makes landfall to collect valuable, mostly wind-related measurements, so that we can relate the wind conditions experienced during the hurricane to the engineering community.

So currently, we deploy a fleet of 48 StickNet platforms, we call them StickNet, because they sort of resemble a stick figure in that they’re an engineering surveying tripod that has been outfitted modified with weather instrumentation, particularly wind sensors.

Texas Tech's StickNets help the National Wind Institute monitor hurricane-force winds. (Courtesy: National Wind Institute)
Texas Tech’s StickNets help the National Wind Institute monitor hurricane-force winds. (Courtesy: National Wind Institute)

We can deploy 48 of these platforms along the whole coastal region during the landfall. It’s really trying to understand what the variability of the wind is both right where the storm makes landfall and get the highest winds experience but also how that wind field varies throughout the entire landfall region, so that we can start to better understand where we see damage, where we don’t maybe try to relate the different variabilities in the wind to the damage that occurs.

In addition to the StickNet platforms, we also deploy mobile radar systems. We have two KA band radar systems that we can drive on trucks to the landfall region and collect, again measurements of the wind.

Here instead of it being just a wind sensor, collecting the wind as it passes through, we’re able to sort of paint the picture of the wind. If you could kind of ask yourself the question, what does the wind look like? With the radars, we can start to look at what does the wind look like and the gust of the wind and the laws of the wind. It’s sort of the turbulent structures in the wind. And that’s really important to the engineering community, as they design the building codes to help improve the resiliency of the built environment.

CURRIE: Are these StickNets, then they’re automated, right? You don’t have to stay next to them when a hurricane comes on.

HIRTH: Correct. So the StickNet platforms themselves are meant to be set up and left. They don’t look very rugged, but they are in fact very rugged. We’ve seen wind gusts 120 to 130 mph with these platforms and historical hurricanes.

We just set the platforms up, it takes a team of two people a couple minutes to set up a platform, flip some switches and get the truck and drive to the next spot. And then the platform will sit out during the storm. And collect data, all the platforms also are equipped with communications equipment that through the local cell network. And so we’re able to relay out summary statistics minute by minute.

During the storm, as long as the cell network remains intact. And for most storms, usually the cell networks are still in good shape, even through the peak of the storm. It’s not until well after once power failures sort of kick in that we start to lose the cell communication.

So we’re able to monitor the wind conditions even in real time back at the hotel we’re at as the storms making landfall.

CURRIE: So the StickNets, you deploy them along the coast before a hurricane comes on shore, after a hurricane makes landfall, do then go back and get them and recycle them for the next storm?

HIRTH: Correct. So with the StickNet platform, we’ll deploy to the coast. And then once it’s deployed, the team itself will try to stay safely very close to the area that we deploy so that as soon as the storm passes, I mean, we may still be in the back the backside of the tropical storm force conditions, but as soon as it’s safe enough to venture back out, we’ll go back out and pick things up so that we can kind of get in and get out of the way before all the emergency response and people start coming back to the areas that are impacted.

We really try to be efficient in deploying stay nearby. And then get the information that’s valuable and then leave as soon as we can.

CURRIE: You mentioned you’ve been doing this for years, what are some of the more notable storms that you guys have deployed these stick nets in that mobile radar?

HIRTH: So the first deployment of the StickNet platforms was back in 2008. And one of the most impactful hurricanes that has really occurred since that time was Hurricane Ike in Texas in 2008. And that was a substantial storm surge-related storm. And so the data collected from the StickNet platforms was really valuable to try to understand there were a lot of instances where homes were completely washed away by the storm surge.

Then there were a lot of insurance issues related to wind versus water in which insurance would cover the losses. And so the wind information that was collected by the platform’s during that storm was highly valuable in helping determine some of those issues. So it was a really big storm.

Then in 2020, Laura was a really substantial storm in southern Louisiana. In that storm, we had several platforms measure wind gusts in excess of 120 miles per hour.

That was a really significant wind event that the platform’s perform admirably. And we were able to collect really valuable information in a really high wind hurricane landfall.

CURRIE: Now this data too, it can be relayed back instantaneously, instantaneous, almost. But when but after the storm, does this go public? Does this go to fellow forecasters and meteorologists, like what’s that next step after once you guys accumulate all this great info?

HIRTH: Yeah, so the data that we collect with the StickNet platform sort of serves two purposes, one is sort of in a real-time aspect. So we have a sponsor from our project that basically takes the data in real-time and merges it into a Winfield model that they sort of recreate the Winfield of the storm as a source making landfall that they can then use to inform their clientele via public or private entities.

So they develop a wind field model, and they distribute that out. Further on past the storm landfall, we’ve been able now to accumulate out of these different hurricanes, a database of different landfalls, different hurricanes, different wind information.

With that, we can use that for research purposes to start to again, understand and better describe how are how is the wind different in different hurricanes, and is that is the wind and the structure and the turbulence in the eyewall of one storm, the same as it is in the other or in the outer portions of the storm.

So we’re starting to build this database of information over many storms, where we can start to relate structurally what the wind field and hurricanes look like, again, to be able to relay that back to the engineering community to help improve and enhance the design and codes that are related to the built environment.

CURRIE: And then last question, you know, like you said, you don’t necessarily think of hurricanes when you think of Texas Tech University, any future projects or next steps with the program that you’re involved in when it comes to the next few years?

HIRTH: Yeah, well, we see the future of advancing the science and making measurements in hurricanes is really related to radar and radar technologies, we think having the platforms on the ground that can collect wind information at different points is really valuable.

Those are direct measurements of the wind. But again, being able to now take radars and in the future, hopefully, a network of radars that can be deployed to the coast to really provide a complete spatial coverage, spatial map of the wind.

That’s really where we believe the research and sort of the advancement is headed because now you don’t have 48 points, you have a complete two-dimensional or even three-dimensional picture of the wind over the entire landfall region.

With that, you can do so much in terms of understanding, again, turbulence in the wind variability in the wind, and how different hurricanes compared to each other. So from our perspective, radar technology can really could be used to enhance the research.

It’s an expensive technology relative to just a simple weather station. And so, again, it’s sort of just another way to advance how we think things are going,