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New research center aims for better hurricane forecasts

Scientists at a new research institute here will study ways to improve hurricane forecasts and protect the Gulf Coast’s natural resources from severe storms, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday.

The federally funded Northern Gulf Institute at Stennis Space Center brings together dozens of researchers who also study ecosystem management, coastal wetlands, climate change and coastal hazards in and around the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. said the institute’s mission is to tackle “some of the largest challenges that we face in our environment, in the country, in the world,” more than a year after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coast.

“You cannot do it with individual organizations and with individual researchers,” he said. “You have to come together if you’re going to solve the problem of climate change and climate variability in our communities.”

The new institute, one of 21 such NOAA-supported research programs across the country, teams up scientists from Mississippi State University, the University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State University, Florida State University and Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.

Dr. David Shaw, the institute’s director, said $6.5 million in federal funding this year will allow scientists at Stennis to greatly expand the scope of existing research projects. Improving hurricane forecasts already is one of the institute’s goals, he said.

“One of the things we’ve talked about is how we can move from a 72-hour forecast, with a high degree of confidence and accuracy, to a 96-hour forecast,” he said. “Just that extra 24-hour period of time can make a world of difference in terms of evacuations and frankly help us avoid evacuations that were not necessary.”

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said scientists at Stennis, a NASA research and testing facility, already have played a key role in protecting the coast. Its weather buoys in the Gulf, he said, gathered “very impressive and useful data” as Katrina approached the shore.

“A lot of useful information has been developed. Now we need to act on that information and that work. We’ll be more prepared, in my opinion, for future hurricanes because of the work,” Cochran said.

Shaw said the institute will build on work by researchers from other parts of the country.

“There are a lot of hurricane models out there, and there are a lot of oceanic models. One of the things we’re focusing on is how you can couple the outputs from those models together to be able to get better information from each one.”