Poring Over The Unpredictable

Mapping tsunamis and other geohazards

Helen Teague - Mapping Tsunamis

Illustrator: Helen Teague

Forces of nature that used to confound the human mind, birthing myths and gods set on understanding the natural world, are now understood in air-conditioned offices with fancy computer programs.

Dr. Randy LeVeque, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Washington, visited the University of Minnesota March 10 to discuss his work mapping geohazards across the globe.

LeVeque has studied the habits of storm surges, debris flows, earthquakes, and landslides. He has developed two software packages, “Clawpack” and “GeoClaw,” which are widely used to estimate the intensity and scope of geohazards. LeVeque spent the majority of his speech discussing his work with tsunamis, which occur when oceanic plates dive underneath continental ones, triggering underwater earthquakes, resulting in wave speeds between 400-500 miles per hour.

With no knowledge of tsunami modeling, you might think LeVeque was playing Poseidon Tycoon if you dropped by his office. Despite the video game-like presentation, his work is the result of countless algorithms, equations, and simulations that form approximations about the unpredictability of natural physics.

As the statistician George E.P. Box once stated, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Despite the video game-like presentation, his work is the result of countless algorithms, equations, and simulations that form approximations about the unpredictability of natural physics.

The results gathered from LeVeque’s observations have proven themselves not only useful, but lifesaving. The exact start of a tsunami is not always readily apparent. Motion sensors can notify surrounding nations within minutes, even seconds after an underwater earthquake occurs.

LeVeque has also contributed to Project Safe Haven, which builds vertical evacuation centers in areas lacking natural elevation, an essential development when tsunamis can bury a coast in five meters of water in just 40 minutes.

Like any subject worth researching, the mapping of geohazards has a long way to go. The U.S. owns the majority of Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis or “DART” buoys. Although they are used in locations throughout the world, they are often expensive to install and have become the target of pirates looking to make extra cash.

As LeVeque would later explain, “During the Indian Ocean tsunami, there was really no warning system available. Even though people knew that there was a tsunami that was going to hit India, Sri Lanka, and other distant shores in several hours, there was really no way to get the word out to many communities along the coast.”