Knowing if a hurricane is a doozy or a dud can mean the difference between life and death. URI oceanographer Isaac Ginis makes it his business to predict the power of these ferocious storms with a computer model so successful it was adopted by the National Weather Service.
Ginis is one of the first scientists worldwide to show the role the ocean plays in hurricanes. Essentially, he proved that ocean temperature is the most important factor in hurricane intensity and power.
“A hurricane is a heat engine,” he says. “It’s a massive natural machine for converting heat energy into mechanical energy, or wind. When a severe storm passes over the ocean, it extracts that heat. Our computer model recognizes this relationship between the ocean and atmosphere.”
His hurricane obsession dates back to his undergraduate years in Russia studying mathematics. He recalls a scientist’s lecture about research ships examining how typhoons interact with the ocean—a project that highlighted the ocean-atmosphere connection and steered Ginis to mathematical modeling.
After getting his doctorate in geophysics in Russia, he landed at Princeton and, later, URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, where his research caught the attention of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Impressed with the accuracy of his hurricane predictions, NOAA adopted Ginis’ ocean coupling methodology more than a decade ago.
The honors and recognitions have been pouring in ever since. Officials in Rhode Island and beyond turn to him when a hurricane is bearing down on the coast, threatening to make landfall. His procedure is also used worldwide; in 2013, forecasters applied the model to Typhoon Haiyan in the Northwest Pacific, which ravaged the Philippines.
The media also calls on Ginis for his expertise. He’s often asked if climate change and its warmer temperatures will bring more intense and frequent hurricanes. His answer: yes, and no. Modeling studies suggest that hurricane intensity might increase because of warmer sea-surface temperature. It’s uncertain, however, if there will be more hurricanes.
“We do think there will be a significant increase in rainfall,” he says. “And that could lead to more inland flooding during hurricanes.”
Mercifully, Ginis has never experienced a hurricane’s rage, but he was part of a team that surveyed the damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The startling image of barges washed ashore is still vivid in his mind.
“The destructive power of a hurricane is enormous,” he says. “That’s why accurate forecasting is crucial. We can save lives.”
That forecasting might improve even more. Ginis has a hunch that the height of waves might be linked to a hurricane’s strength. His research on that should be completed soon.
Meanwhile, he offers advice for students who want to study hurricanes and other severe storms. Don’t get a pilot’s license to fly into the eye of a storm. Take courses in physics, mathematics and computer science.
“Computer models are the future of hurricane prediction,” he says. “You can do groundbreaking research sitting at your computer.”