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Posted: July 16, 2014

Can sharks help predict hurricanes?

Dan Kitwood
(Getty)

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WFTV – Orlando, Fla.

MIAMI —

Researchers in Florida are testing an unorthodox method of forecasting hurricanes. They're trying to determine if sharks and other large fish can help them reliably predict the deadly storms.

Hurricane Charley packed wicked winds and killed more than a dozen people. Ten years and millions of dollars later, scientists at the University of Miami scrambled to develop the latest technology to prepare Florida for the next big one.

Dr. Jerry Ault believes his team found a way.

"It's the ah-ha moment," Ault said.

Researchers found that tracking the behavior of sharks and fish can help predict a hurricane before it forms.

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"The behavior of fishes is so tied to ocean atmosphere, it's uncanny," Ault said.

Researchers at the school have attached about 1,000 tiny probes to sharks and tarpon in the waters across the Florida peninsula. Their goal is to attach about 1,000 more at a cost of $6,000 apiece.

The magic number for storms to form happens to be 79 degrees. The cutting-edge technology found that sharks and tarpon flock to the same 79-degree waters.

Researchers said watching the animals' movements could improve forecasts, saving lives and property.

"Here's a way to reduce those probabilities, to understand how that storm will work through the ocean," Ault said.

At the same time, University of Miami is studying the effects of a Category 5 hurricane during landfall.

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A new $15 million research lab should be fully operational within the month.

"We hope to be able to increase the resilience of our coastal communities," Brian Haus said.

A tank at the facility will test storm surge and the effects of 190 mph winds.

"We hope to do simulation with physical models that can provide additional information to guide code development," Haus said.

The cutting-edge research above and below the ocean surface aims to help Floridians survive storms for years to come.

Researchers emphasized that the use of sharks and tarpons as hurricane predictors is still in the testing phase. They said more research is needed before they will know if fish will someday help identify the next big hurricane.