Could sharks help researchers predict hurricanes?

(CBS NEWS) - During a casual game of golf in 2010, marine biologist Jerry Ault mentioned his latest research project to friend and colleague, Nick Shay. The two are professors at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, but their work rarely, if ever, overlaps. Ault tracks the behavior and migratory patterns of marine animals, while Shay studies the waters those animals inhabit.

Ault was just making conversation, but the comment led to research that could change the way forecasters predict the severity of hurricanes and tropical storms.

Since 2001, Ault's research team has been tagging fish, primarily tarpon, with satellite-linked sensors that measure ocean temperature, depth, light level and salinity. The university also started tagging sharks in 2010.

Looking at the data, they noticed an interesting pattern: as they migrate, tarpon follow a line of water that is 79 degrees. That's when Shay's ears perked up.

The ocean temperature these fish were following - 79 degrees - matches the lower bound temperature for tropical storms.

"The animals were tracking the primary metric that was critical for [Shay's] work," Ault tells CBS News.

That measure is ocean heat content, the energy in the ocean that's available to be drawn up into the storm. Knowing how much ocean heat content is available is critical in predicting the severity of a storm.

Currently, researchers send piloted aircrafts into the storms. The storm chasers drop a dropsonde -- 16-inch tube filled will temperature, pressure and humidity measuring tools -- into the storm. In July 2013, NOAA also started using GPS to measure wind speeds.

By using data sent back from fish and sharks that are already in the area, the information is available faster, cheaper and in a safer manner.

"These things can talk to us in near-real time through satellites," says Ault. "[Forecasters] can update their models a lot faster with high-res information that's actually there, if they are not dependent on the time lags and costs of having to go out there in the airplanes and drop these sensors."

So far, the UM team has equipped more than 750 sharks, tarpon, tuna and billfish with the tags.

"They're the boots on the ground," assistant professor Neil Hammerschlag told CBS News. "They're able to make precise measurements that can be used by these forecasters. The cool part is that these animals all live and occupy different habitats and areas, so it allows you to monitor deeper water, different areas."

All together, the tagged fish are helping the researchers at UM monitor a range of depths in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

The tags cost about $4,000 each. (That price does not include the time that the researchers spend trying to safely catch the fish and attach the sensors, which can prove difficult.) They release data every time the fish or shark comes near or through the surface.

Their current data set is interesting, but it is still in a very early stage. The scope is not nearly large enough yet to reliably predict storm patterns - that would require tagging thousands of marine animals. UM is currently seeking funding from government and private sources to expand the research.

Another interesting use for the data could be monitoring when the sharks or fish leave their normal areas.

That's because many sharks, such as nurse sharks, leave the area when air and water pressure starts dropping ahead of a storm, as reported by The Telegraphin 2008. If the fleeing sharks are wearing satellite-linked tags, their actions could serve as an important early-warning system. Ault and Hammerschlag said these behavioral patters have not been studied enough to draw a conclusion on this application of the technology.

Researchers have tried other ways of monitoring ocean temperature patterns, with limited success. In 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started using underwater "glider" drones to measure ocean heat. But despite their $200,000 price tag, the gliders can't move quickly and they're no match against ocean currents.

Harnessing the power of sharks and fish might turn out to be a natural solution.


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