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USF researchers ready for hurricane season

TAMPA, Fla. -- For storm experts like Jennifer Collins, what happens between hurricane seasons is just as important as the seasons themselves in predicting and understanding hurricane activity.

“There is always something to learn,” she said.

Like the fact that hurricane activity in the Northeast Pacific and the North Atlantic are interconnected.

Collins, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Planning, made the discovery only after dividing the Northeast Pacific into two distinct sub-regions -- east and west.

“Other researchers hadn’t noticed the relationship -- partly because they treat the Northeast Pacific basin as one major region,” she explained. “When you mix it together, you don’t see the connection.”

But it’s a complex relationship; one that is closely tied to the El Niño phenomenon, sea surface temperatures and winds, among other environmental factors. Collins also noted the role that relative humidity in the mid-atmosphere played on hurricane development in the western sub-region of the Northeast Pacific. An active season in the western sub-region of the Northeast Pacific, Collins found, typically means a less active season in the North Atlantic. The same is true in reverse.

Collins’ ground-breaking work, published in the Spring 2010 edition of Southeastern Geographer, could have implications for predicting future storms. So, too, could her analyses of prior hurricane seasons, like the 2009 North Atlantic hurricane season that was below normal in terms of overall hurricane activity. This work was published in the December 2010 issue of the National Weather Digest, with her work on the 2009 Northeast Pacific hurricane season currently in press in the American Meteorological Society journal, Monthly Weather Review.

“It’s not enough to look at seasonal averages of conditions such as water temperature and humidity. You have to look at intra-seasonal variability,” Collins said. “Relationships with hurricane numbers and variables can be masked when averaging the entire season, a methodology some researchers have adopted in the past. Sometimes a clearer picture emerges if one looks in detail at what is going on at a smaller scale -- month-to-month.”

Long fascinated by hurricanes and other big storms, the London-born Collins joined USF in 2005 after stints at universities in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and having earned her Ph.D. from University College London. Today she oversees the USF Weather Center, a laboratory where teaching and research is focused on climate and weather conditions ranging from hurricanes, tornadoes and rip currents to global warming and the social aspects of major weather events.

With the start of the 2011 hurricane season June 1, Collins and her team of researchers, including Ph.D. students Charles Paxton and David Roache, are working to improve the predictability of storms -- their development and path, as well as how changing global climate conditions affect storm activity. Their research includes:

In February, Roache received the Dewey M. Stowers Award for Excellence in Meteorology from the West Central Florida Chapter of the American Meteorological Society, as well as the best graduate student paper award at the Florida Society of Geographers annual meeting. It was the second year in a row that students from Collins’ Weather Center won the award for best paper. Last year, Paxton received the award for his presentation entitled “Modeling Southwest Florida Warm Season Tornado Development.”

As Collins and her students look ahead to the 2011 hurricane season, they also look back.

“Every season is unique in some way,” she said. “Every season brings us more information, more data to look at. The more we can pin down answers, the more we are able to have more accurate seasonal forecasts.”

And while it’s still too early to accurately predict what the 2011 season will bring, Roache is certain about one thing:

“If you live on the coast and a hurricane warning is issued, get out of the way.”

View the full list of USF faculty hurricane experts.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Geography, Environment, and Planning Research School of Social Sciences  
Author: Vickie Chachere