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Tsunami Researchers Make Waves

Oregon lab simulates the damaging flows triggered by quakes or volcanoes. Goal is to aid with evacuations, ensure buildings survive.

November 30, 2003|Fawn Porter | Associated Press Writer

CORVALLIS, Ore. — A low rumble broke the silence. Swelling and cresting, large waves slammed into the concrete basin containing them. The powerful waves were quelled when Daniel Cox signaled the control room to shut off the tsunami simulator.

"That's how it works," said Cox, the lab director. "We control the tsunamis."

Here at the world's largest tsunami research lab, scientists and graduate students are conducting experiments to better prepare tsunami-prone regions for the massive waves.

"The likelihood of tsunamis is not increasing," Cox said. "However, more people are moving to the coast, and it's our job to see that they live there safely."

Tsunamis, enormous waves caused by earthquakes or undersea volcanoes, can be devastating.

A 1992 tsunami washed away two-thirds of an Indonesian island.

A 1964 earthquake set off a tsunami that devastated many towns along the Gulf of Alaska and also caused damage along the West Coast.

Tsunami research at the Corvallis facility began in September. Its goal is to help coastal communities around the world plan for more efficient evacuations, and construct buildings and bridges able to withstand the impact of tsunamis.

The O. H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab is housed in a hangar-like building in Corvallis. Its floors are littered with objects that have been used in experiments -- boats, driftwood, rocks, metal siding.

Researchers create miniature tsunamis inside a rectangular, 50-yard concrete basin that looks like a swimming pool. Although the water depth inside the basin is only 3 feet, the scientists are able to simulate 150-foot-tall tsunami waves.

Inside the basin are rocks and gravel, to gauge the effect of giant waves on shorelines.

"The goal is to make sure it actually looks and acts as a shore so we can gather accurate data on a wave's effects," Cox said.

In another room is a 372-foot-long flume built in the 1970s to determine what effect wave forces would have on man-made structures and the erosive forces on beaches.

Scientists create miniature structures -- such as a simulated marina -- and send waves of water crashing against them, said Javier Moncada, an undergraduate student in the program.

At the basin where tsunamis are simulated, Cox explains how it works:

Inside the tank is a large metal paddle used to create waves and control their height and direction.

A scientist tells the control room operator to move the paddle to a certain position. With a rumbling sound, the paddle creates a wall of water that simulates the way a tsunami moves.

The lab is part of nationwide seismographic research that's being conducted at 15 sites. The Corvallis facility is the only one that studies tsunamis.

The overall research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation with a $4.8-million grant from the foundation.

At the Corvallis lab, scientists don't have to actually be there to conduct research.

Cox pointed to a moving camera beneath the lab's second-floor control room.

"That camera is called our 'wave cam.' Using this camera, remote scientists can see their experiments in progress via the Internet," he said.

Using online resources, researchers can share data and seek advice from one another.

"When you get several people together, it amplifies the effects of the research," said Harry Yeh, a wave expert and professor at Oregon State University.

The compiled data and results will be stored online for easy reference.

"In times past, a scientist would spend so much time conducting research, write a paper -- only to have it placed in a book and shoved away for 15 years," Yeh said.

"But with this," he said, "with collaboration, lots of people can immediately be involved while the interest and information is still current."

The tsunami lab has also been used in experiments for alternative energy and the effects of bioterrorism.

It also conducts research for private consulting firms and fish hatcheries, and the U.S. Navy has expressed interest. Internationally, the basin has begun to generate interest in regions such as Japan.

Yeh said the data received from the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami near Hokkaido in northern Japan will give researchers new insights.

"Oregon State is on the up and up," said Chris Renedo, a first-term graduate student. "It's a well-kept secret about to be exposed."

Yeh said the tsunami research has a promising future.

"Even though it's just now on its feet, it's already deemed highly valuable to tsunami and other scientific research. The center is a success in itself -- a tribute to the advancement of science," he said.

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