University of South Florida


Hurricane hunting to beach erosion: USF prepares next generation for weather-related expertise

A Fort De Soto park ranger explained the beach ecosystem and the ways severe weather impacts the coastline, especially via erosion | Photo by: Jennifer Collins

Hurricane hunting to beach erosion: USF prepares next generation for weather-related expertise

By: Cassidy Delamarter, University Communications and Marketing

Students from across the state and nation are heading into the height of hurricane season more knowledgeable about the weather and climate. It comes from spending their summer at USF learning through a unique lens that only the Tampa Bay region could provide: hurricane hunters and beach ecosystems.   

The Research Experience for Undergraduates, funded by the National Science Foundation, provides students with field experience for nine weeks. Led by Jennifer Collins, geosciences professor, and Robin Ersing, public affairs professor, the weather and climate research experience provided 10 students with an opportunity to evaluate hurricane decision-making, socioeconomic impacts of air quality and environmental variables relevant to hazard vulnerability. 

“It is important to get that perspective particularly as more people are becoming vulnerable to hurricane impacts and the impacts of climate change,” Collins said. “Understanding social factors and perceived risk will help the future generation of weather-related experts better communicate with emergency management who can make informed decisions to further save lives.”

Collins’ research focuses on weather and climate activity with an emphasis on studying evacuation behavior. She is currently working with partners in Puerto Rico to examine hurricane risk perception and evacuation patterns – data that is vital to improve the health and safety of those impacted by hurricanes.

In downtown Tampa, students went door-to-door to gather that same information, surveying residents about their evacuation decision-making and previous hurricane experiences. After conducting their research, each student presented their findings during a poster symposium at USF.  “For most of them, this is their first research experience,” Collins said. “It often sets them up for future research experiences, including graduate programs.”

“My favorite experiences were spending time with my research partners – both within and outside of research,” said Anson Kirsch, a USF sophomore studying chemical engineering. “I spent a lot of time analyzing air and water sample data using a variety of techniques that I was not always familiar with. I think the most significant aspect of the research process which I developed were the technical skills practiced during analysis in lab with my mentors.”

The group visited several locations across the Tampa Bay region to gather an interdisciplinary perspective on social and physical impacts of severe weather and climate-related disasters.

Students helping with weather balloon

Launching a weather balloon to determine atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and temperature

To kick off the program, they started by learning about Florida’s most common natural disaster: hurricanes. They visited the National Weather Service (NWS) to launch a weather balloon and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hurricane Hunters in Lakeland, where they examined the planes, equipment and radar used to track storms. 

“I would have to say my favorite experience so far was being able to visit an NWS office,” said Jason Eric Young, a Daytona State College sophomore who wants to study meteorology. “I would love to be able to work for the NWS in the future, so being able to visit an office, talk with working meteorologists and figure out what kind of qualifications were needed was definitely an experience I won’t take for granted.”

To examine the impact of hurricanes on the coastline, the group visited Fort De Soto, a Pinellas County park made up of five interconnected islands spanning more than 1,100 acres.  A park ranger explained the beach ecosystem and the ways severe weather impacts the coastline, especially via erosion. 

For a unique emergency preparedness perspective, the students spent time at the 63-acre ZooTampa. With more than 1,300 animals, the zoo helped students analyze how to prioritize the health and safety of visitors, staff and animals during severe weather. 

The program provides each student with experiential learning, trainings in social and physical research techniques and professional development – all areas that Collins says are vital to kickstarting a career in research. 

This year, USF also hosted a Research Experience for Undergraduates dedicated to studying urban water sustainability, led by Collins and USF Professor Philip van Beynen. Next summer, USF will host the Weather, Climate and Society REU program again, but expand with new programs, including marine sciences and climate adaptation and mitigation. 

Interested students can learn more about REU opportunities here.

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