Could sharks predict hurricanes?


Since 2001, researchers at the University of Miami have tagged 750 marine animals to monitor the temperature, brightness and salinity of sea water at various depths. Earlier this year, however, researchers noted a special occurrence in the data: the fish tended to inhabit water of a temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit or more – the temperature at which hurricanes form. Hence, sharks could predict hurricanes.

The strength of a hurricane depends upon how warm is the water it can access. The hotter the water, the stronger the storm. The fish – billfish, sharks, tarpon and tuna – all dive. They can give scientists an overview of sea temperatures by gravitating to these waters. Scientists can thus determine the Ocean Heat Content. The more accurate the data, the better is the estimate of hurricane strength. Not many degrees at all mean the difference between a tropical storm and a possibly deadly hurricane. Satellites cannot discern this information. Shark could predict hurricanes even more accurately than that because some, such as nurse sharks, leave an area when pressure falls, as happen before a hurricane. Neil Hammerschlag, a research assistant professor at the University’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, declared sharks to be “like a canary in a coal mine.”

Marine biologist, Jerald Ault was interviewed by the Houston Chronicle about how sharks could predict hurricanes. He described the tagged beasties as “biological sensors.” Data is transmitted to a satellite when the fish near the sea’s surface. Some of the fish swim 100 miles in a day, continuously going up and down. Tagging costs around USD4,180/GBP2,500/EUR3,072, while underwater sensors costs USD200,608/GBP120,000/EUR147,555, although catching a fish and attaching a sensor can be problematic. The cylindrical tags are attached behind a fish’s dorsal fin, where there are few blood cells and little nerve tissue, making the process feel as bad as an ear piercing. The information is close to real time and could be of a higher resolution than was previously available. Arianna, a hammerhead shark that was tagged in Florida Keys, tends to stay close to the Gulf. Aldonza, a sandbar shark, was tagged in Hawai’i and ventures out into the Pacific.

Nick Shay, professor of meteorology and oceanography at the University and a joint leader of the project, exclaimed, “The fish can give a gazillion pieces of information, and that represents a really exciting opportunity.”

Sharks could predict hurricanes if thousands of fish were tagged. The University is seeking funding from state and private sources to further its research. Data would be supplied to the US National Hurricane Center, although as things stand, this body’s top hurricane specialist, James Franklin, let forth that he believed fish would not have “a significant influence on hurricane forecasting.” The US National Weather Service predicted that there would be 13 tropical storms in 2014, of which six could become hurricanes. Hurricane season begins on June 1.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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