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Environment | Water

Professor Makes Waves to Save Lives

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The landslide moves quickly. Three thousand pounds of gravel spills down a metal chute and rolls beneath the surface of an extra-large tank of water. Waves follow. Not big waves. They’re more like ripples moving away from a man-made metal island at the Hindsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University.

It’s the kind of event that’s occurred about 300 times since last summer at OSU’s Tsunami Wave Basin. On Wednesday, Professor Hermann Fritz led a demonstration for media to draw public attention to his study of underwater landslides that produce tsunamis.

“I’ve been studying tsunamis for about 15 years now,” says Fritz, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

(A small-scale tsunami created Wednesday at OSU’s Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory.)

Fritz’s work has significant implications for the Pacific Northwest, along which lies the Cascadia subduction zone.

Researchers have studied the impact an earthquake and resulting tsunami might have on the coast here, but Fritz and his colleagues are the first to replicate the kind of underwater landslide that could accompany such an event.

Their work also can be applied to landslides that could hit the Columbia River Gorge or the Bonneville Dam and reservoir, Fritz says.

Earthquakes, unstable geology or volcanic eruptions can trigger landslides that produce tsunamis.

Fritz reminds a group of touring media that a 1958 Alaskan tsunami that was triggered by a landslide caused a 1,700-foot wave, the largest ever recorded.

What Fritz and his colleagues in the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) learn from their research will be used to help communities better prepare for worst-case scenarios should a tsunami hit. For instance, it could help building engineers design for specific locales and allow emergency responders to anticipate the size of the waves they might encounter.

(Professor Hermann Fritz explains the importance of understanding how landslides produce tsunamis.)

Fritz will run his last wave test this week and then finish his data analysis. He’ll have help from the people at the lab, says Melora Park, NEES’s Site Operations Manager.

The landslide work also will be part of the lab’s education program, Park says. Hundreds of K-12 school children come to the lab each year. Some even build their own projects and try them out in the wave tanks. Who knows, they could be some of the next Professor Fritzes.

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