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Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences

Above, Kevin Reed at a presentation at the Montauk Lighthouse in July. Photo from Kevin Reed

By Daniel Dunaief

Hurricane Dorian has dominated the news cycle for weeks, as its violent winds, torrential rains and storm surge caused extensive damage throughout the Bahamas and brought flooding and tornadoes to North Carolina.

For Kevin Reed, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who models extreme weather events including hurricanes, Dorian followed patterns the climate scientist anticipates will continue to develop in future years.

“Two things that are current with Dorian are consistent with what we’d expect from a changing climate,” said Reed. Dorian became a Category 5 storm, which is the strongest on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Second, the hurricane slowed down, which was also a trend that Hurricanes Harvey and Florence demonstrated.

The reason a warming climate would slow a hurricane like Dorian is that the polar regions are warming more rapidly than the tropics. That can have a “huge impact on the overall circulation” within the atmosphere, Reed said.

Indeed, what controls the speed of the jet stream, which moves hurricanes and other storm systems along over the rotating planet, is the difference in the temperature between the tropics and the poles. When the poles warm up more rapidly than the tropics, the circulation in the atmosphere can slow down and that can reduce the speed of the wind that blows the hurricane.

“Hurricanes are impacted by climate” and any change in that dynamic will have an effect on storms that can and do present a threat to the homes, businesses and lives of people in their path, Reed said.

Basic research has enhanced and improved the ability of forecasters to predict where a storm like Dorian will go, allowing meteorologists and the National Hurricane Center to provide warnings to political leaders and emergency response teams.

“Our general understanding of why storms move and go where they do has improved significantly over the last few decades,” Reed said. “Part of that can be seen in the forecast.”

Most of these forecasts are informed by numerical models. That is where Reed brings his expertise to hurricane science.

“I am a numerical modeler,” he said. “I use and help develop models to understand tropical cyclones and precipitation in general.”

Using information often taken from satellites, from in situ observations, radar along the coastlines and aircraft that fly every few hours into a storm, especially when they threaten the Caribbean or the East Coast, forecasters have had a “steady improvement in these models.”

Reed likens the process of predicting the weather or tracking a hurricane to choosing a stock. As investors and companies have become more sophisticated in the way they analyze the market or individual companies, their algorithms improve.

Investors have “added more variables” to choose companies for their investments, while forecasters have added more information from enhanced observations.

As for the ongoing coverage of hurricanes, Reed said the general population seems to have a relatively good awareness of the path and destructive power of the storms. The one area, however, that may help people focus on the potential danger from a storm comes from the way people describe these hurricanes.

Often, media outlets focus on the speed on the wind. While the wind can and does topple trees, causes property damage and disrupts power supplies, much of the damage comes from the storm surge. Rising water levels, however, is often the reason state and national officials encourage people to evacuate from their homes.

“Whether a storm is a Category 2 or a Category 3 doesn’t take into account the size of the storm,” Reed said. Hurricanes can range in size fairly dramatically. Hurricane Sandy was not even a hurricane when it made landfall, but it was so big and it impacted a much wider area that it had a much larger storm surge.

After a storm blows off into the ocean or dissipates, the scientific community then spends considerable time learning the lessons from the storm.

In the case of Dorian, researchers will explore why models initially predicted a landfall in Florida as a Category 4 storm. They will look at what happened to slow it down, which will inform future versions of forecasts for other storms.

In the future, Reed hopes researchers enhance their ability to represent convective processes in the models. These involve the formation of clouds and rain, especially in the context of a storm.

“That’s something that’s constantly been a difficulty,” he said. “It’s a complex process. While we have theories to understand it, we are always improving our ways to model it.”

In the next 10 years, researchers will move past the point of trying to estimate convection and will get to the point where they run models that explicitly resolve convection, which eliminates the need to estimate it.

Reed believes investing in fundamental research is “crucial. The return on investment to society and to the country is one of the best investments you can make. We have shown that through a steady improvement in the hurricane track,” which came about because of fundamental research. “The only way to continue that improvement is through basic and applied research that leads to these outcomes.”

A native of Waterford, Michigan, which is about 45 minutes away from Detroit, Reed didn’t have any firsthand experiences with hurricanes when he was growing up. Rather than watching MTV the way his friends did, he would watch hurricane updates or tropical storm updates.

A resident of Queens, Reed enjoys traveling and has a self-described “unhealthy” commitment to the University of Michigan football team. He purchases season tickets each year and takes 6 a.m. flights from LaGuardia to Michigan, where an Uber brings him to his fellow tailgaters before home games.

As for future hurricanes, Reed said the current consensus is that they will be lower in number but higher in intensity. Hurricane forecasts expect “more intense precipitation, but less frequent” storms, he said.

Cedar Beach waters in Mount Sinai run into the Long Island Sound. File photo by Elana Glowatz

With mounting pressure to preserve the sanctity of Long Island’s coastal waters, Suffolk County is teaming up with specialists at Stony Brook University to educate the public on marine pollution.

“Folks on Long Island are more involved with [marine pollution] than other parts of the country because they are spending time around the sound and beaches,” said Katherine Aubrecht, the faculty director for coastal environmental studies at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “It’s such a bigger part of people’s lives, and there is a more receptive audience here to be thinking about this.”

The county Legislature unanimously passed a resolution June 5 to direct the Division of Planning & Environment in the Department of Economic Development and Planning to collaborate with SoMAS to establish a marine debris pollution awareness program.

“It is important to teach young children about the impact they are having on their community and how they can become environmentally conscientious.”

— Kathleen Fallon

Though it is just in its preliminary stages, according to Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) who sponsored the resolution, the awareness program would be used to educate school-aged children and the general public on the dangers of garbage pollution to the marine ecosystem.

“We want the education to be generalized, so that we can have flexibility in who we speak to and about what,” Anker said.

Anker said the two goals for the upcoming program are to educate the public on how we are affecting and degrading our oceans, and to teach people what they could do about it, including the need for beach cleanups and how to properly recycle plastics.

Aubrecht said that there are three unpaid interns from the Stony Brook University’s environmental humanities program charged with compiling data on ocean pollution, and looking into what other marine debris  education efforts exist on Long Island. Data is also being collected on demographics the program wishes to target with the campaign.

Kathleen Fallon, the coastal processes and hazards specialist for New York Sea Grant, said educating young people is of the utmost significance.

“It is important to teach young children about the impact they are having on their community and how they can become environmentally conscientious,” she said. “Some examples could include teaching students about the impact they might have, even just picking up a few pieces of trash or about how all pollutants eventually make their way into marine environments.”

“Some examples could include teaching students about the impact they might have, even just picking up a few pieces of trash or about how all pollutants eventually make their way into marine environments.”

— Kathleen Fallon

Anker said she expects the program to have a full formal presentation ready by the end of next year. She also expects by next Earth Day, the debris awareness program will have presentations to show what citizens can do to help clean up the local marine environment.  

Microplastics ending up in local waters are among the most pressing issues on Long Island. Microplastics are plastics that have broken down due to erosion into pieces smaller than 5 millimeters — they end up being swallowed by sea life endangering the health of the animal and, if the issue is untreated, those plastics can easily end up on the dinner table.

At the county Legislature’s April 19 Health Committee meeting Rebecca Grella, a Brentwood High School research scientist and teacher, said she had surveyed Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in Old Field in October 2017 and that in 1 square meter of shoreline, found 17 grams of microplastics. She said there were approximately 400 pounds of plastic in 1 mile of shoreline in the pond.

Aubrecht said that when these plastics enter a marine environment they can also cause organic pollutants — which are often too dispersed and not dangerous — to merge onto these plastics, but have a larger effect on marine wildlife. Ocean debris also cause animal entanglement, like a small fish or turtle getting caught in a plastic ring that holds a six-pack of cans. These entangled creatures often suffer major injuries or die if they can’t free themselves.

Though all these problems may seem daunting, Fallon said that education is the starting line in a race that will hopefully end with the elimination of marine pollutants and debris.

“A community that is made aware of the impact that they are having on their environment will hopefully be more likely to avoid harmful actions,” Fallon said.