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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 08/27/2009

Feeling the Power of Hurricane-Force Winds

By Steve Tracton

* Cooler, Showery Tomorrow: Full Forecast | Year of Science *
* T.S. Danny's Winds Near 60 mph: Hurricane Tracking Center *
* Danny's Impact Likely Minimal for Metro Area: Weekend Forecast *

CWG's Steve Tracton faces down winds up to 100 mph in the University of Maryland
Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel.

This week marks the 55th anniversary Hurricane Carol. Carol was the first time I had personally seen the power of a hurricane when it came calling in 1954 to my home in Brockton, Mass. Since then I've had several close-up encounters with hurricanes, but always from a safe vantage point without direct exposure to hurricane-force winds.

So, when I saw the announcement that the University of Maryland would be hosting a Hurricane Wind Tunnel Media Day, I simply could not resist the opportunity to actually feel winds up to 115 mph. It was an awesome experience and lots of fun, too.

Keep reading for more on my wind tunnel experience...

I was greeted at the wind tunnel facility by its director, Dr. Jewel B. Barlow. Before entering the tunnel, Dr. Barlow reviewed what to expect, including tips for having fun (and surviving) the wind tunnel experience.

He mentioned that one could stand without restraints for wind speeds up to 40 mph. Higher than 40 mph requires being anchored with a safety restraint and wearing safety goggles. The tunnel's maximum wind speed is 230 mph, though 115 mph -- equivalent to a low-end Category 3 hurricane -- is as high as they'll go when a person is in the tunnel. While not applicable in my case, Dr. Barlow mentioned that men are cautioned not to wear ties -- they would be shredded -- and women are advised not to wear blouses with slippery pearl buttons -- to avoid a "wardrobe malfunction." Dr. Barlow added, "don't laugh, it's happened."

As the wind speed increased to 40 mph (tropical storm force) I could move around freely. As speeds increased toward minimal hurricane strength of 75 -80 mph, I couldn't hear anything nor could I communicate verbally with the tunnel operators. Flash cards were held up to tell me how fast the wind was blowing, and a thumbs-up signal by me was the OK for continuing to jack up the speed.

You'll see in the video (at the beginning of the post) my shirt flapping violently, as well as my facial features being distorted in a chaotic pattern. I finally gave the colloquial slash-across-the-throat signal to quit at 100 mph, since I felt like I was going to fall over backwards.

Keep in mind that the force of the wind increases with the square of the speed such that, for example, the force at 100 mph on my body was four times, not twice, that at 50 mph. While feeling badly that I didn't make it to the tunnel's top speed of 115 mph, Dr. Barlow consoled me by noting that the increase in wind force between 100 mph and 115 mph would have been relatively small compared to that when the wind was cranked up from 40 mph to 100 mph (factors of 1.32 and 6.25, respectively).

Not only did I survive -- and enjoy -- the experience of facing down hurricane-force winds, but I did so without having to hang onto a telephone pole in the midst of the real thing, or otherwise make a fool of myself like so many TV news reporters here and amateur storm chasers, a.k.a. certifiable candidates for a Darwin Award.

By Steve Tracton  | August 27, 2009; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton, Tropical Weather  
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Regarding the force difference between 115 and 100 mph, I calculate it as a 32.25% difference, not 2.25%
(115*115)/(100*100) = 1.3225

Posted by: jjennings2 | August 27, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Steve - what a great experience. Reminds me of working on Mount Washington and experiencing hurricane-force winds on a regular basis. We had the comfort and safety of an observation deck with a railing around it on which to test our strength against the wind. 85 mph was my limit, after which I couldn't stand up at all. Glad you made it to 100mph! Thanks for sharing the video.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 27, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

jjennings took the words right out of my mouth. At 115 mph.

The tunnel operators probably just told him that to make him feel better. Or perhaps they incorrectly calculated the difference based on the 15% *higher* speed (0.15^2 = 0.0225), and not based on the 115% *total* speed.

Posted by: tomsing | August 27, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Nice post, Steve! I too worked for a while on Mt. Washington, NH, and was flattened by winds of 90mph one May evening. Of course, there was also freezing rain falling at the time, so I have a bit more of an excuse for slipping (my goggles were completely frozen over, so I couldn't see anything either). But I remember vividly the roar of the wind and the feeling that I was suddenly totally alone and at the mercy of the airflow. It was exhilarating.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | August 27, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

It was great to see your experience in the wind tunnel, Steve - especially since I myself am not going to try it. I love wind, but I don't want to experience what that much of it feels like. :-)

Posted by: --sg | August 27, 2009 9:06 PM | Report abuse

@ jjennings2 and tomsing

Thanks for the correction. My notes from the time at the wind tunnel erroneously read 2.25%, and I was remiss in not checking its relevance and validity. The increase in force between 115 and 100 mph indeed is 32.25%. The point being made was that the incremental increase in force between 115 and 100 mph was relatively small compared to the increase from the prescribed baseline of 40 mph to 100 mph. Nevertheless, I’m now feeling more disappointed in not making it to 115 mph – but there’s always a next time.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 27, 2009 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Thanks to those of you who noted the corrections to the difference between the force on objects at 100 and 115 mph. I also want to clarify that 115 mph is the maximum speed we at the GLMWT will set the speed when we have a person in the tunnel. The maximum speed for the tunnel is 230 mph. Speeds in excess of 200 mph are often used in experiments on aircraft, cars, and some other devices. You can learn more at our web site

Jewel Barlow, Director GLMWT

Posted by: JewelBarlow | August 27, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your comments, Jewel

I urge all to check out the GLMWT web site (URL above). It's a fantastic resource and I'm confident you'll find the past and ongoing research fascinating, even if not directly meteorology related. I'm sure Jewel will be glad to answer any questions you might have - his contact info can be found on the web site.

One really great item - offline from the wind tunnel itself - is a specially made pendulum like device which demonstrates chaotic behavior - the minutest difference in starting it off results in behavior remarkably different from any other start.

See: pendulumVideo

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 28, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

@jjennings2 and tomsing and JewelBarow

Thanks for your comments. The post has been updated accordingly.

Posted by: CapitalWeatherGang | August 28, 2009 5:11 PM | Report abuse

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