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Predicting the Future: Forecasting Models to Track Storm Surges

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: July 14, 2015

Joannes Westerink, the Joseph and Nona Ahearn Professor in Computational Science and Engineering and Henry J. Massman Chairman of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, has helped many coastal flood protection and risk assessment projects adopt and apply state-of-the-art high-resolution computational codes to better mitigate and understand the risk associated with hurricanes. This involves predicting water levels, waves, and currents and using high -performance massively parallel computational codes to forecast these often catastrophic events.

Prime hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean typically runs from June 1 through November 30. Although 2015 is expected to be a below-normal season, incoming storms can still prove incredibly destructive and drastically impact coastal communities. This is the reason Westerink and his team are working to develop the next generation of hurricane forecasting tools — codes using sophisticated high-order algorithms to enable computational girds which can easily evolve with the storms, as well as innovative fine-grained parallel computational paradigms. Their most recent work, a $3M project in partnership with Louisiana State University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

Westerink pioneered the successful development of unstructured mesh coastal ocean models that integrate a wide range of scales — from ocean basins, continental shelves, coastal flood plains, estuaries, and rivers to channels. In particular, his work is focused on the physics of tides and hurricane waves and surge in coastal regions. In fact, he is the co-developer, with Rick Luettich of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Clint Dawson of the University of Texas at Austin, of the widely used ADCIRC finite element based shallow water equation code. ADCIRC is a robust analysis tool that has evolved into a community based coastal hydrodynamics code with wide-ranging applications within academia, government and the private sector for infrastructure design, emergency planning, and mitigation and recovery efforts related to hurricane storm surge and flooding. The U.S. Army extensively uses the ADCIRC model as does the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One of the studies conducted by the Westerink group, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the state of Louisiana helped determine water levels due to hurricane surge to design levee heights and alignments around metropolitan New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. A follow-up study suggested that instead of raising levees in the lower Mississippi, lowering some of the structures back to their natural states offered a better solution. “By eliminating the 55 kilometers of man-made levees on the west bank of the river from Pointe a la Hache and Venice, the surges would be lowered by up to two meters,” Westerink said. “This would save billions of dollars in levee construction and better protect communities.”

Although lowering these levees might affect specific areas along the lower west bank of the river, Westerink believes the hazard could be addressed by building strong and high ring citadel levels around the areas and connecting communities with bridges, like the Florida Keys. “Building smarter citadel flood protection systems in the delta instead of along north-south linear systems that follow the river,” he added, “would reduce the flooding risk and work with nature in that sediments could get to the delta from both the river and from storm surge, thus building up the delta and reducing levee construction needs and costs.”

In addition to storm surge Westerink and his team of researchers have used computational models to forecast the movement of oil spills and fish larvae in coastal areas, such as the movement of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

A faculty member of the College of Engineering since 1990, Westerink has received numerous awards, including the inaugural American Society of Civil Engineers' Orville T. Magoon Sustainable Coasts Award, the BP Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award in the College of Engineering at Notre Dame (2004), Outstanding Civilian Service Medal from the Department of the Army (2007), the USACE Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force Leadership Award (2007) and the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at Notre Dame (2010).

For more information on Westerink and his team, visit the Computational Hydraulics Laboratory.

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