Scientific curiosity around how air interacts with the ocean in the event of powerful storms has inspired a number of wind-emulating facilities around the world, from a high-speed wind-wave tank at Kyoto University to the Hydrodynamics Laboratory at Imperial College London. But just as hurricane season kicks off in the US, a team at the University of Miami is looking to step things up a notch. A freshly built indoor tank designed to study category five storms is now open for business, and as the only one of its kind in the world, is hoped to offer a new understanding of these destructive superstorms.

The University of Miami oceanographers have used a smaller version of this system to study waves in the past. The earlier model measured one meter (3.3 ft) wide and was capable of simulating wind speeds equal to what you'd find in a category three storm.

Located at the university's School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the new US$15 million tank, known as a SUrge-STructure-Atmosphere-INteraction Facility (SUSTAIN), measures 20 m (65 ft) long and 6 m (20 ft) wide. It is claimed to be the only wind-wave facility in the world with the capacity to reproduce gales worthy of category five storms, in which winds reach speeds in excess of 252 km/h (156 mph).

As for what this might mean in terms of scientific discovery, the researchers say the possibilities are many. The initial studies will investigate the spread of oil in the wake of a spill, along with how well existing fishing nets hold up when such strong winds blast across the ocean's surface. Climate change is also on the agenda, with altering the water temperature and salinity a potential way to learn about the amount of carbon dioxide shifting between the ocean and atmosphere during tropical storms.

Work at the new facility may also impact future planning and building codes, by planting model buildings into the tank to see how they withstand the brutal conditions. This could, for example, see a miniature Port of Miami placed inside the tank so scientists can learn more about how wind and waves behave in and around land and infrastructure.

Ultimately, it is hoped data gleaned from the research facility over time can lead to improved predictions of the severity of hurricanes.