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Sharks could one day help scientists predict tropical storms

One of the ocean's top predators might be a meteorologist's best friend when it comes to storm predictions. Scientists are hoping sharks will one day help them more accurately predict the strength of tropical storms and hurricanes prior to landfall.

The R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami tags about 300 sharks a year to study their movements, but researchers now want to use more advanced tags so sharks can collect weather data.

"The animals then become environmental sensors," said Neil Hammerschlag, who heads the shark tagging program. "They can get to areas and habitats that we can't really efficiently."

Hammerschlag says sharks, for reasons still unknown, happen to gravitate to rapid temperature changes, which is where storms often intensify. Sharks can also swim long distances and into hard to reach depths. Tiger sharks, for example, can swim up to 30 miles a day and dive more than 2,000 feet.

Hammerschlag invited CBS News correspondent Bigad Shaban to join him and his team on one of their recent shark tagging trips about 3.5 miles off the Miami coast.

Shaban asked, "What makes sharks such good storm chasers?"

"Well, the great thing about sharks is they don't really know boundaries here in the ocean," Hammerschlag said. "They go out and do their thing and collect data while they are swimming around."

Catching a shark can take a couple of hours, but once it's tagged the sensor can continue sending information to researchers for over a year. While scientists already use deep-water probes to collect weather data during storms, the price tag for the equipment -- and the several-hour plane ride to drop the devices into the ocean -- can run close to $100,000. Shark tags run about $4,500 a piece, and could offer researchers real-time information, around-the-clock.

"Once you tag the shark and release it back into the water, it's basically operating as an underwater submarine," said Nick Shay, a meteorology professor at the University of Miami. "They can provide critical data around these deep, warm ocean fronts."

Shay helped develop the idea to use sharks to collect ocean data, and believes the process could improve the accuracy of storm forecasts up to 20 percent.

"The sharks give us an added dimension," Shay said. "What it could do is really provide necessary data to go into the models... to give us a better idea of what the intensity level is going to reach just prior to landfall. Not only are [sharks] swimming in those areas, they are also providing data at a high data-rate that give you more information than you currently have with just satellites."

Scientists still need to secure funding, but hope to have about a dozen weather sensors swimming with the sharks over the next few months.

"In comparison to some of the tools they use to collect ocean temperature...it's very inexpensive," Hammerschlag said. "The sharks are doing it - we don't have to pay them a salary to go out and collect this information."