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OSU Researchers Test New Wavemaker To Learn About Tsunami And Hurricane Damage

Researchers at Oregon State University tested out a new $1.1 million wavemaker Wednesday.  The device is designed to accurately simulate waves created by both tsunamis and hurricanes.  

The wavemaker is over 300 feet long and 12 feet wide.  A piston pushes the water and creates waves.  Researchers then study the impact of those waves on structures like levees and buildings.

It’s important those structures are not scaled down too much, says Dan Cox, director of the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at OSU.

“Sometimes the materials that we’re looking at, you know how the wave impacts wood or concrete or steel, common building materials, those materials you don’t want to make small because their properties change if you make them too small,” says Cox.

Cox says the wavemaker—the largest of its type in the nation—allows for precise, large scale studies on the impact of hurricane and tsunami generated waves.

“The overall goal is not really to focus on the buildings so much as saving human live and the potential for debris to be a big hazard, a major hazard in tsunamis, and also the potential for steel reinforced concrete to provide vertical evacuation,” says Cox.

Vertical evacuation is when people head up into a building designed to withstand a tsunami, rather than evacuating inland to higher ground.

Cox says the vertical evacuation strategy is common in Japan.

“Depending on where you are in town, your best option is to go up into a building,” says Cox.  “And whether it’s a purposefully built building or an existing structure that was, let’s say, a parking garage or something like that, they have a co-strategy.  And in the United States, with the exception of Hawaii, we don’t have a co-strategy.”

A co-strategy would involve evacuating inland for some people, and vertical evacuation for others.

Cox says the OSU wavemaker lab has generated quite a bit of international interest.

“Coastal problems aren’t unique to the United States,” says Cox.  “There’s tsunamis in the Pacific, there’s typhoons, there’s global sea level rise.  The Dutch are looking at coastal erosion and levy overtoppings.  Yeah, it’s a worldwide problem.”

Over the summer, the wavemaker will be used to study the effect of tsunami impacts on wooden structures.  The wavemaker is funded my the National Science Foundation and a $1 million grant from the state of Oregon.

A study funded by the Department of Homeland Security will be conducted this fall to look at the effect of hurricane force waves on levees.  Other research will look at potential impacts from sea levels rising due to global warming.

But in Oregon, tsunami research remains of particular interest.  Major tsunamis hit the Oregon coast every 300 to 500 years.  The last major tsunami struck Oregon in 1700.

Cox says their research could change how Oregonians prepare for the next tsunami.  He says the vertical evacuations show promise compared to the existing plan to evacuate to higher ground.  And, he adds, the vertical evacuation structures don’t have to be big, concrete structures like bomb shelters from the 1950’s.

“It’s a much different idea.  It’s just getting up inside the flooded zone.  It could be a park that’s high enough, and the water flows around it.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big concrete bunker,” says Cox.

The vertical evacuation could especially benefit people who can’t quickly get inland to higher ground, says Cox.

“We learned from Katrina, most of the people that were seen by the Red Cross were over 65,” says Cox.  “And as we have aging populations on the coast, we’ve got to think about who are the vulnerable populations, and what we are going to do for them.”


Hurricane Wavemaker Video


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