Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
February 02, 2005
Engineer working to help students understand, mitigate tsunamis
Prompted by the havoc wreaked by the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean, a retired University of Guelph professor is working to help future engineers better understand water and wave action.
Bill James said it’s imperative that engineering students have a chance to learn more about waves, information that may allow them to design structures and procedures that could ultimately help save lives and coastal property and environments.
Working with three other members of the hydrotechnical division of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, James is designing an optional curriculum module on water waves to be made available to educators, including university engineering faculty. It will include basic information on propagation and movement of waves when they reach land, as well as ways to mitigate their impact.
Despite the seeming complexity, James said waves are relatively easy to understand and model using readily available mathematics and computing tools. “There’s lots of software around that can be used for mapping tsunami water levels or surges in coastal areas and designing safe human escape routes,” he said.
Referring to pictures of the devastation left behind by the tsunami in almost a dozen countries in Asia and Africa, James said: “The images showed that the hydraulics of the on-shore waves is calculable, very like floods, and therefore predictable in an engineering design sense. Hydraulic computer modelling would have been useful — and cheap.”
In developing the new curriculum module, James will be using principles he first explored as a graduate student more than 40 years ago. For his PhD he studied specially built structures designed to calm waves entering harbours. His results have been used in designing harbours and their breakwaters in Canada and abroad.
After the Dec. 26 tsunami, James said it was evident to him that people lacked information and understanding about such a phenomenon. Many victims approached the shore after the first wave receded, only to be engulfed by the next surge. Others may have mistakenly clung to trees and structures to prevent being carried away.
“Evidently, unfettered animals that couldn’t grab hold of obstructions suffered little or no deaths or injuries,” James said. “But folks who held on against the flood may have been subsequently washed away when the flow they had resisted reversed, now at greater depths.”
He added that media reports of a “wall” of water descending on the coast give an inaccurate picture of the nature and scope of the problem. The greatest damage came from the powerful rhythmic pumping and flushing action of the long-duration waves, activity that broke up buildings and infrastructure and pulled the debris out to sea.
“There are too many poor people occupying dangerously low-lying lands, and some holiday hotels are cheaply built in flood-prone areas,” James said. “Folks did not have or know of safe lines of retreat. Now, with the flood-prone areas cleared, is an excellent opportunity for implementing planning and development controls.”
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