Tropical Storm Flossie on Track for Hawaii—and Mars

By Kate Greene | July 29, 2013 10:53 am

This is the fourteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

flossie animated

UPDATE 3:03PM CDT | Early Monday morning Hawaii time, Tropical Storm Flossie tracked north and then west, just glancing the Big Island, on a path for Maui. At the habitat, all is calm, safe and sound.

Winds on the Red Planet can rage up to 100 miles per hour—hurricane speeds on Earth. But thanks to an atmosphere about 1 percent as dense as our planet’s, such gusts don’t pack a punch. And while the wind is often sandy, the grains are fine. It’s less sandblast and more smoke cloud.

The problem, however, is that these clouds can expand to cover areas the size of Earth’s continents and last weeks or months, blocking energy from the sun and potentially damaging joints on rovers or other equipment.

On Earth, our storms are smaller in scale and shorter in duration, but significantly more powerful. As I type this, one of these is bearing down on Hawaii, home to our four-month HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. The storm’s name is Flossie, and she is forecast to bring significant rain and wind speeds up to 45 miles per hour—which could spell havoc for our tiny outpost.

In Flossie’s path

Our faux Martian home is essentially a tent on the side of Mauna Loa, in the saddle region facing neighboring volcano Mauna Kea to the north. Therefore, the major concern is that this location, something of a wind tunnel, could amplify wind speeds that exceed the structural tolerance of our habitat. There’s also the potential for mudslides and localized flooding.

As sort-of survivalists on a simulated Mars outpost, we’re prepared in a number of ways. We have shelf-stable foods, plenty of water, and our own generators. But our secret defense is crew member Sian Proctor, professor of geology at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix Arizona.

Sian, who teaches a class on natural disasters, lives for this stuff. And she’s trained for it too. She came to HI-SEAS just after a 13-week internship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a sabbatical project. Additionally, our crew health and safety officer, Oleg Abramov, is a trained first responder. Our engineer Simon Engler, who was a soldier in Afghanistan, also has emergency training.

Awaking to chaos

Flossie makes landfall Monday morning. We expect to wake up to the sound of seriously strong winds. The hope is that the dome cover holds and the structure stays put, but we also have contingency plans. Adjacent to the dome is a sturdy shipping container that we’ve used for food and tool storage. It’s currently stocked with emergency supplies including basic rations, water, radios, and an emergency locator beacon.

We’ve also packed sensitive laboratory equipment and electronics into large Rubbermaid containers in case of flooding. Our data is backed up remotely, and we have bedside bags, ready to be grabbed in a quick evacuation. Mine holds notebooks, my laptop, phone, headlamp and extra socks. I’ll be leaving my stack of unread New Yorkers behind.

In a worst-case scenario, where both the hab and the shipping container are compromised, we will hike out. A nearby military zone called the Pohakuloa Training Area is aware of our presence. Personnel there can aid an evacuation.

In Martian terms, the storm will gone in a flash—by Tuesday it will have passed. We’ve prepared as best we can. Now, it’s time to wait.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: tropical storm, weather
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Zigmund/100000590089238 Charles Zigmund

    Why would you put a test colony in a natural wind tunnel? Was this intentional or did someone screw up? Tell the truth, now.

    • kbinsted

      The “wind tunnel” effect at the site is pretty small (altitude has a stronger effect), and the hab is sheltered from the most common winds by the mountain itself. It would only be a concern with a perfect storm (literally) of wind direction and strength. Unlikely, but the crew was quite right to prepare anyway.

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About Kate Greene

Kate Greene is a San Francisco-based science and technology journalist whose work has appeared in Discover magazine, The Economist, and U.S. News & World Report, among others. She is presently a crewmember of HI-SEAS (Hawaiian space Exploration Analog and Simulation), a 120-day simulated Mars mission, during which she will live on the rocky slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa inside a two-story dome, eating astronaut food. As a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut. Gastronaut’s not bad either. Her Internet home is kategreene.net.

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