(CBS NEWS) -- During a casual game of golf in 2010, marine biologist Jerry Aultmentioned his latest research project to friend and colleague, NickShay. The two are professors at the University of Miami RosenstielSchool of Marine & Atmospheric Science, but their work rarely, ifever, overlaps. Ault tracks the behavior and migratory patterns ofmarine animals, while Shay studies the waters those animals inhabit.
Aultwas just making conversation, but the comment led to research thatcould change the way forecasters predict the severity of hurricanes andtropical storms.
Since 2001, Ault's research team has beentagging fish, primarily tarpon, with satellite-linked sensors thatmeasure ocean temperature, depth, light level and salinity. Theuniversity also started tagging sharks in 2010.
Looking at the data, they noticed an interesting pattern: as theymigrate, tarpon follow a line of water that is 79 degrees. That's whenShay'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.
Thatmeasure is ocean heat content, the energy in the ocean that's availableto be drawn up into the storm. Knowing how much ocean heat content isavailable is critical in predicting the severity of a storm.
Currently,researchers send piloted aircrafts into the storms. The storm chasersdrop a dropsonde -- 16-inch tube filled will temperature, pressure andhumidity measuring tools -- into the storm. In July 2013, NOAA alsostarted using GPS to measure wind speeds.
Byusing data sent back from fish and sharks that are already in the area,the information is available faster, cheaper and in a safer manner.
"Thesethings can talk to us in near-real time through satellites," says Ault."[Forecasters] can update their models a lot faster with high-resinformation that's actually there, if they are not dependent on the timelags and costs of having to go out there in the airplanes and dropthese sensors."
So far, the UM team has equipped more than 750 sharks, tarpon, tuna and billfish with the tags.
"They'rethe boots on the ground," assistant professor Neil Hammerschlag toldCBS News. "They're able to make precise measurements that can be used bythese forecasters. The cool part is that these animals all live andoccupy different habitats and areas, so it allows you to monitor deeperwater, different areas."
All together, the tagged fish arehelping 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 tryingto safely catch the fish and attach the sensors, which can provedifficult.) They release data every time the fish or shark comes near orthrough the surface.
Their current data set is interesting,but it is still in a very early stage. The scope is not nearly largeenough yet to reliably predict storm patterns - that would requiretagging thousands of marine animals. UM is currently seeking fundingfrom 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'sbecause many sharks, such as nurse sharks, leave the area when air andwater pressure starts dropping ahead of a storm, as reported by The Telegraphin 2008. If the fleeing sharks are wearing satellite-linked tags, theiractions could serve as an important early-warning system. Ault andHammerschlag said these behavioral patters have not been studied enoughto draw a conclusion on this application of the technology.
Researchershave tried other ways of monitoring ocean temperature patterns, withlimited success. In 2012, the National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration started using underwater "glider" drones to measure oceanheat. But despite their $200,000 price tag, the gliders can't movequickly 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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