Sharks may provide answers to hurricane forecasts


Posted on May 19, 2014 at 10:36 PM

Updated Monday, May 19 at 10:36 PM

Alexandra Cranford / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @ACranfordWWL

Could sharks be the key to better hurricane forecasts? It sounds a little fishy, but researchers are attaching sensors to sharks to find out what’s happening in the water below a hurricane.

Vital data for predicting hurricanes could soon come from sharks swimming beneath the storm.

Researchers at the University of Miami tagged hundreds of sharks and tarpons in the Gulf of Mexico with sensors that feed back data via satellite. The sensors detect water temperature, depth and conductivity.

“What it amounts to is extra data points that they can put into the models that we have now,” said Rich Toth, director of Animal Husbandry at the Audubon Aquarium.

Hurricane models already use data from satellites above the surface and from buoys at the surface. A network of sensors on sharks would build a third tier of data points, to fill in the gap below the surface. That’s the crucial spot where hurricanes get their fuel. More information on the deep ocean heat content would help predict the strength of an approaching storm.

“It’s not only what the temperature of the ocean is at the surface. It’s kind of the reservoir of deep water, deep warm water that’s available,” said Frank Revitte, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Slidell.

The researchers found the sharks flock to water that’s near 80 degrees. That’s the critical water temperature at which tropical storms start to build. So if enough fish are tagged, hurricane models could one day draw from a rich source of mobile data points that hover near the storm.

Toth says sharks are good candidates for tagging because of their size. “The larger the fish the better. The tags can be kind of heavy and cumbersome.”

The tagged sharks and tarpons feed back vital information, but there’s an added benefit to tagging fish: it’s cheap. Right now the tags cost $4,000 each, but a single tagged fish can supply thousands of data points per season.

Compare that to hurricane hunter missions that drop ocean profilers. Those can cost $16,000 per mission. Undersea gliders are another deepwater option, but their price tag is near $200,000.

“I think collectively, this could be an important tool to help enhance what we already have in place,” Toth said.

The project isn’t perfect. For one thing, sharks don’t always stay where you want them.

“The problem is we can’t really control where they’re going. They go wherever they want to go,” Toth said.

The researchers submitted a government grant proposal last year, but didn’t get it. Still, they’ve tagged 750 fish, and they want to tag hundreds more to get a broader plot of the ocean column. The hope is one day, sharks with sensors could be a cheap and easy way to make hurricane forecasts a little sharper.

Newer sensors the size of a pencil could soon let researchers tag many more kinds of fish in the Gulf and expand their data network. The researchers are presenting their findings in Taiwan this fall.