Fast Company

With Tsunami Images Still Fresh And Terrifying, Research Ramps Up In U.S. Labs

tsunami aftermathWith images of the Japan earthquake and tsunami fresh in the minds of coastal dwellers everywhere, tsunami science is getting a fresh infusion of interest, and cash, in the U.S. From giant wave basins in Oregon to current-speed detectors in California, the U.S. is expanding its tsunami research, especially in the Pacific Northwest states that researchers say face grave risk of big-wave destruction.

Oregon State University scientist Solomon Yim, director of the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, says that each time a major tsunami hits, his $20 million lab sees an uptick in research projects from his average of $2 million in annual grants. "Before 2004, tsunamis were not on the radar screen of Americans," says Yim. That all changed with the Indonesian tsunami, and in 2005, the departments of transportation for the three western coastal states commissioned more research.

The Japanese tsunami may be the most influential of all when it comes to spurring research and increasing public awareness. Historically, tsunamis often occurred at night or in places where people didn't have video cameras. But the dramatic images from Japan may have--literally--shed new light on big-wave disasters.

"There is no question the video footage of the Japan tsunami is incredible," says Lori Dengler, chairwoman of the geology and oceanography departments at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., who heads the Humboldt Earthquake Education Center. "Prior to that, we had relatively no good footage of the tsunami.”

Yim's lab has expanded to six people, up from three, in the past five years. He is studying, for example, the debris kicked up by a tsunami, and the impact on structures. "The coastal engineers and harbor people need to take tsunamis into account for design," he says. "They do have bridges sticking right out into the ocean." (Note to engineers: Don't do this anymore.)

A structural engineer with a background in computational fluid dynamics, Yim researches how fluids impact structures. His tsunami center, which opened in 2000, now has two large basins, one of them 342 feet long. Imagine a much bigger, scarier water-park pool that simulates giant, destructive waves. Now, he is busy calculating the physics of damage a tsunami could cause on bridges, roads, and other infrastructure on the West Coast.

His findings suggest cylinders resist tsunamis better than other shapes of pillars that hold up bridges. Any corners or abrupt changes stick out and catch water, while the cylinder "is the optimum shape." On buildings that must use I-beams and other corners, he said engineers should focus on creating a strong frame with tearaway panels to withstand damage.

As for Dengler, who is heavily involved with the efforts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, she's helping to develop and test an instrument that tracks the speed of tsunami currents. Their prototype in Humboldt Bay measures current velocity, and caught early signals of the March 11 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. They want to add more such instruments in California to improve earthquake and tsunami detection.

"It's the speed at which the water flows that may cause the damage, particularly if it carries debris," she said. In the past, tide gauges recorded the height of tsunami waves, but not the current speed. "We are really at the very beginning to describe those current philosophies.”

It's not just public entities that are getting in on the research and educational initiatives. The U.S.-based giant FM Global insured nearly 3,000 properties in Japan that sustained less than $150 million in damage. "Whenever there’s a significant issue like in Japan, there are always questions of where else it could happen," said Lou Gritzo, a vice president and manager of research at FM Global. "The Pacific Northwest is on the short list.”

Gritzo said the insurer is working with clients to prevent damage with methods such as turning off natural gas to buildings to avoid fire damage during an earthquake, and keeping sprinkler lines in working order. It also does computer modeling of tsunamis.

All this is not to say that the U.S.--which racked up $60 million in damages on March 11 as waves from Japan's tsunami reached the West Coast--is where it needs to be with tsunami research or preparedness. Despite the near-meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in the wake of the tsunami, and the flurry of new research going on in the U.S., Japan still is "by far, the most prepared country in the world for tsunamis," said Yim.

Meanwhile, the risks of a West Coast tsunami are far from hypothetical.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, which spans 600 miles from British Columbia to Northern California, has potential for generating a large tsunami that could ravage parts of Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

"The Cascadia Earthquake is our biggest concern," says Dengler. "We are talking about exactly what happened in Japan." She predicts Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, and San Francisco would have earthquake damage, followed by huge waves arriving 10 to 15 minutes later. "We're talking about a very, very big tsunami that happens very, very quickly.”

Yim and other scientists say the historical record shows a massive tsunami struck the coast just over 300 years ago, on Jan. 26, 1700, after a 9.0 earthquake rattled the ocean floor less than 100 miles off the coast of Oregon. Paleontologists have found tsunami deposits up the Columbia River. Tree-ring indicators and written records in Japan indicate the tremor also sent water across the ocean.

With a major tsunami like that typically recurring every 250 years, the Cascadius is 50 years overdue. Yim puts chances of another major West Coast tsunami in the next 50 years as high as 85%.

Fire up the wave pool.

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[Images via U.S. Navy Imagery and Flickr user Sarah Ruth]

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3 Comments

  • john delano

    "We do not understand the geologic rules of this Planet Earth."
    The absense of a "Japan type trench" or a Java-Sunda trench" off the Pacific Northwest is the reason why the NW -USA will never have A MEGA-tsunami like Japan or Indonesia.

    "Put that in your pipe and smoke it."

    In Radioactive dating of rocks in the 50's we all thought "brains"could put together what has been going on -on Planet Earth. We had giants in intelligence , there "sholders" to stand on and come to some conclusive conclusions.

    Example: The Periodic chart of elements-It is sheer poeetry.
    Hawkings-the Big bang- theory- a thing of beauty.

    Geology??????????

    A stupid Plate Tectonic Theory that never proves anything, and has more problems then Donald Trump has Ponzi Schemes.

    The massive lava floes on Planet earth are in 97.7 % in agreement with the 12 major "EXTINCTION EVENTS" on Planet earth.

    You can not make money examining why there is this major correlation in these two major events, and that is why we do not have an answer-IMO.

    The Columbia Plateau created over the past 16 million years is not one of lava floes used in the calculation.
    Why?
    Only the lava floes that start in Russia ,as in the Siberian Steeps, proceed down the Atlantic Ocean ,go around South Africa , go up the Indian Ocean and stop are used in the 97.7% calculation of the correlation of lava flows and perodic extinctions of plants and animals on planet Earth.
    Why?

    Someone working on incidence /correlation of extinctions over the period from 248 million years ago to 65 million years ago was trying to tell us something.

    That something is what I discovered in 1976- that the ice cap on the Pacific "Hollow" came over the "top"' to this side of the world, into what is now Russia. After pushing up the "Northern wall of mountains" 400 million years ago, the floe continued down the atlantic, around South africa and up the Indian Ocean.
    It stopped , was stopped by the Hymillian Plateau it pushed up.
    Thats what someone else saw. The age of mountains around Europe and Africa are in 100% agreement with the age the ice floes pushed them up.

    all mountains , there age of formation get younger as you move counterclockwise around Europe-Africa.

    It can not be discussed because it would destroy the Plate Tectonics theory nonsense.

    This discussion has taken me away from my discussion of the Columbia Plateau.
    The Plateau has 23 lava steeps-45 to 60 feet high. Why?

    Lets keep it simple. The ice cap 18 miles high on the Pacific side of Planet Earth contained all the water , frozen that would eventually fill the 7 seas of the Planet Earth. This ice cap over 4.4 billion years of grindind the bottom cutting trenches at the edges rotating would by the heat of friction create massive magma pools in the upper mantle under the Pacific side of Planet Earth. That magma came out around the entire Planet earth from under the ice cap and from under the 3 major continnental size ice shell floes that traveled over the "other side of the Planet -besides the Pacific.

    As the high ice cap sat over the Juan de Fuca ridge [rebound structure] its edge, the ice edge was pushing inland. It would stall at the point where the Front range ends and the overthrust area ends.
    Rotation forces change over time,as does the crust sliding over the upper mantle, so the ice cap retreated, and the backend of thice cap/floe emitted magma from under the ice. The tail end of the retreating ice cap/floe smoothed out the lava floe like a massive "trowel" 300 miles wide!
    One step was laid down for the Columbia Plateau.
    It happened again and again- advancing to the east 300 miles inland and then retreating and spreading the lava creating another step.
    I am not smart enough to figure out what orbit cycle/axial tilt/precession feature created this sequence of steeps to be created, but someone out there knows the calculation.
    write me at sunnyday1 john delano

  • john delano

    "We can have a Tsunami and earthquake just like Japan?"
    Nonsense- You are yelling "fire" in a crowed theater and there is none-be careful.

    Japan has a 1,000 mile 25,000 foot deep trench off shore- Our NW USA has now trench -No subduction nonsense applies here, instead massive erosion over the past 16 million years has filled in the trench and left these fan structure of this massive erosion from our once higher mountains.

    In my comment below- The Serbian Scientist M Milankovitch orbits are clearly identified, but the one not mentioned was his famous huge elliptical 413,000 year elipitical orbit cycle.
    Everyone saw his 8 glacial ages over the past 800,000 years and everyone except Al Gore saw the 8 "hockey stick" formations in the Russian Vostock ice cores, as we came out of the ice age- except Al Gore.
    Boy he must feel like a jerk.
    We may have a new "Ponzi scheme" -see ANC telephones where we can look at each other on the scene of a new wannabe president Donald T- Boy he scares me.
    He sues people for calling him poor.
    One way to prove the NW- USA is different then Japan is -Dahh-How do you have a stupid Plate Tectonic Theory that has new ocean land rising [ocean ridges] and old ocean disappearing-subduction [Pacific Plate moving under North America-???] all next to each other. How can that be. It can't and we have a stupid theory-Plate Tectonics.
    The Massive Magma pools forming under the mountains pushed eastward from the Pacific can be traced over the 16 million years of movement of the Juan de Fuca trench by the movement of the ancient Caldera's of Yellowstone National Park.
    The 413,000 year massive orbit cycle of mr M Milankovitch was never seen in the geology on Planet Earth and he died without finding it. It was hidden under the oceans and only shown by the lansat satillite in 1958 as the Transform Ridges across the ocean Ridges. Some are following the "Delano Constant" of the massive ice cap's ability to move 3,000 miles of crust and upper mantle and 6 miles deep at the front cand only move that land 6 inches per year.
    When the massive 413,000 ,big elipitical orbit of Mr Milankovitch came around the ice front of the massise ice cap will "Rift" sideways dissapating the massive increase in centrifical forces caused by this extreme orbit cycle.
    Every 41.3 miles [ thats 6 inches per year movement over 413,000 years] The Front of the high ice cap and flows rift sideways from top to bottom, leaving the transcurrent faults and dragging with it the 6 mile deep magma pools causing the predictable alignment of land and magnetic orientation of the then magnetic north pole.
    Can I continue?
    The Columbia Plateau proves the 413,000 M. Milankovitch orbit cycle.
    sunnyday1@optonline.net

  • john delano

    "tHERE IS NO CASCADIA SUBDUCTION ZONE."
    When the Juan de Fuca mid-ocean ridge was discovered in 1958 it was dated radioactively- we know the ridge is rising and the molten magma from 6 miles down is ozzing fron the center. This ridge is close to shore and not in the Mid-Ocean-Why?
    Oh I have researched the process and it is quite simple. The Juan de Fuca ocean ridge and every ocean ridge, all 40,000 miles of them are "rebound structures" , a footprint of the highest ice mass that was once overhead now reflecting the greatest rebound.
    Our mountains in our Northwest US are amazing because of the ice cap "on the land" that was the Pacific Hollow that was over the past 16 million years pushing up mountains all the way to the "Front Range" of Colorado."
    Colorado- that huge Plateau was created from 3 states scrapped to its bedrock as the ice mass enclosed the mass and "slid " it eastward. This created the high Colorado Plateau, whose drainage system over those 16 million years, The Colorado River created the "Grand Staircase": The Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Bryce National Park.
    Oh the ice-cap that moved inland was'nt through with a simple 1,000 mile long "overthrust" belt it moved massive weak layers of old strata, 500 million years older strate intact over young land, confusing many well drillers and geologists.
    The magma pools created by the heat of friction at the bottom of the moving ice were growing and were being pulled along and moved as the rotation forces-centrifical forces of an orbiting planet earth changed it s orbit over time.
    In 16 million years earth would go through 160 -[100,000 glacial age cycles] glacial cycles plus 390 - [41,000-axial tilt] axial tilt where a "bald Man " standing at our north pole will only get sunburned every 41,000 years as the incoming sun was finally visable-enough.
    Can I continue?
    Sunnyday1@optonline.net