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Teen Invents New Hurricane Damage Model

As a high school student, Alice Zhai recalls watching the TV when Hurricane Sandy struck New York and wondering how a relatively weak but large storm could cause such devastation. “I was really curious,” the Southern California teen told NASA’s Earth Science news team.

Her curiosity led to a 2013 project in the Los Angeles County Science Fair, where her novel statistical model of economic losses from hurricanes won an outstanding achievement award from the American Meteorological Society’s L.A. chapter.  It also led to a collaboration with Jonathan Jiang, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was a judge at the science fair – and a paper the following year in the professional journal Environmental Research Letters. She was just 16 at the time, and about to start her senior year at La Cañada High School.

Zhai and Jiang found that the common practice of using only wind speed to represent hurricanes in economic damage models is inadequate for large storms, such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. They were the first to quantify the economic impacts of increasing hurricane size.

Analyzing 73 hurricanes from 1988 to the present, Zhai and Jiang found that a doubling in size, without a change in wind speed, more than quadruples the economic loss a hurricane causes. Tripling its size multiplies the loss by almost 20 times.

Experience has shown that not only size but the height of the storm surge, total rainfall, and other characteristics affect a storm’s impact. But the United States still classifies hurricanes solely by their speed, using the Saffir-Simpson scale. The scale was devised before satellite observations made it possible to view a storm’s size.

Yet there is no standardized scale of hurricane size. Different databases use different benchmarks — for example, the distance from the storm’s center to the location where the wind speed is either 34 or 64 nautical miles per hour, or knots. As part of their study, Zhai and Jiang recalibrated all storms to the 34-knot reference point.

Under Jiang’s direction, Zhai kept working on her model to create publishable results, more than doubling the number of storms in the study and doing a more rigorous statistical analysis. The first time the authors submitted the paper, it was turned down. But the reviewers comments were encouraging, so they pressed ahead, modifying and resubmitting the paper.

Jiang encouraged Zhai to apply for an internship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and then convinced her adviser there to allow Zhai to expand her hurricane work at JPL over the summer. The work included improving their hurricane loss model by adding factors such as storm duration and regional economic wealth, and using more accurate data on hurricane size based on measurements from NASA’s QuikScat satellite.

Zhai, who thrived among the postdoctoral fellows, went into the lab unsure of what she wanted to study in college. Working in a professional setting ignited a desire to pursue a career in math and science. Winning a $50,000 award from the Davidson Institute later that summer ensured she could follow her dreams. (Read the Los Angeles Times account from August 2014.)

Now majoring in applied and computational mathematics at Caltech, Zhai was a data analysis intern at Facebook this past summer.



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