Labs Prepare to Protect—and Collect—Data During Hurricane Dorian
Labs Prepare to Protect—and Collect—Data During Hurricane Dorian

Labs Prepare to Protect—and Collect—Data During Hurricane Dorian

In the southeastern US, the coming storm disrupts research for many scientists.

Sep 1, 2019
Emma Yasinski

ABOVE: NASA

As Hurricane Dorian, which strengthened to a Category 5 storm today (September 1), makes its way toward the East Coast, some researchers at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience are getting ready to spend the night with their microscopes, while marine researchers up the coast prepare for an impromptu study of the storm.

“You have to completely change all the [research] plans,” when a storm like this hits, says Nicolai Urban, a microscopy specialist at the neuroscience institute, also known as MPFI. “Everything’s going to be on lockdown.” 

Having learned from previous storms like Irma and Matthew, researchers are taking special precautions to protect their samples, equipment, and data. At MPFI, that means defending 22 two-photon microscopes, complex instruments that allow the researchers to see into the cells of living tissue to better understand brain function.

The delicately-calibrated microscopes are extremely sensitive to the surrounding environment. The scopes are housed on the ground floor because even regular building vibrations can influence their functioning. In addition to covering the scopes and raising them inches off the floor to protect them from flooding, Urban, has taken reference photos of the samples in each microscope, so that as soon as scientists get back to work, they can determine if the microscope’s calibration needs to be fixed. 

“It's a long cascade of different mirrors and lenses and color-selecting optics and filters and devices and all have to be aligned very, very precisely,” he says. “The alignment of the microscope can change just by a one-degree temperature uptick or by the humidity in the room changing by 10 percent.” 

As of Sunday morning, models show the storm—now with winds up to 180 mph—might not make landfall in South Florida, but the impacts are likely to be felt even if it remains over the ocean. Florida is also experiencing its highest tides of the year because of the moon’s proximity to the Earth, increasing the risk of coastal flooding. Researchers throughout the state are not only taking precautions but preparing to collect data on its impacts.

Mark Martindale, a marine biologist at the University of Florida, describes the institution’s Whitney Lab as being “on a piece of land that's about 18 inches above high tide and there's nothing between you and Atlantic Ocean. . . it's in a very precarious location, which is why it's great to work there, but it also makes it very vulnerable to the elements.”

A few hours north of MPFI, near St. Augustine, on Saturday, Martindale and his team were hauling more equipment outside in hopes of collecting data on the storm. They protect the sensors, which gather measurements on parameters such as water temperature and salinity, by weighing the instruments down in the water with lead or tying them to buoys with cables. Martindale says that during Hurricane Matthew the team “underestimated the power of the water,” and many of the sensors were lost. This time, they’re not only securing the sensors more sturdily, but they’re putting out extras.

 “We've learned . . .  our lessons and we're actually putting additional sensors out because this is sort of like a lifetime experiment. . . . You can really monitor what's going on in these really acute environmental storms and you learn a lot,” he says. 

On Saturday night, MPFI was on lockdown. Those staying in the building had extra sandbags ready to protect equipment in the event of flooding. The building is certified to withstand a direct hit from a category 4 storm, says Urban. “It’s probably one of the more safe places to be actually. But it doesn't mean it's comfortable or fun.”

Emma Yasinski is a Florida-based freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaYas24.