Wave Action!
Tsunami (pronounced soo-NAH-mee): A Japanese word meaning “harbor wave”

Whoosh! A big wave of fast-moving water rushes toward a town. The wave crashes into buildings, pushing them around like toys. But no one gets hurt. That’s because this is only an experiment to study the impact of giant waves on seaside towns.

The experiment is taking place at Oregon State University in a special laboratory equipped with huge wave machines. When a strong earthquake shakes the Earth beneath the ocean, it can cause a giant wave called a tsunami. These giant waves can travel for hundreds of miles across the ocean.

Tsunami chart

An undersea earthquake triggers a tsunami.

When a powerful tsunami reaches the shore, it can wash away anything in its path. Boats, cars, roads, bridges and buildings can get picked up and carried off.

To help people prepare for these destructive waves, scientists at OSU are studying their incredible strength. If scientists like Professor Harry Yeh can discover how much force the waves carry when they come ashore and crash into buildings, they can help builders, engineers and architects to design stronger offices, stores and houses.

“Strong buildings can stand up to a tsunami,” says Professor Yeh, who is one of the world’s top experts on tsunamis. “We have to figure out the best way to do it.”

The scientists conduct their experiments in OSU’s Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, one of the largest wave labs in the world. In the lab, there is a very long, narrow tank made out of cement. The tank, which holds 300,000 gallons of water, is kind of like a flume at a water park. Scientists can create waves in the tank and then calculate the strength of the waves.

Simulated tsunamis crash into scale model buildings at OSU's O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab, the nation's largest tsunami test facility. Engineers have run tests with the Oregon coastal communities of Seaside and Cannon Beach (Photo: Frank Miller)

Simulated tsunamis crash into scale model buildings at OSU's O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab, the nation's largest tsunami test facility. Engineers have run tests with the Oregon coastal communities of Seaside and Cannon Beach (Photo: Frank Miller)

In another part of the research lab, scientists can set up miniature towns with small wooden buildings. Next, a wave-making machine releases a surge of water toward the tiny town. Scientists call this experiment a “model.” When the wave crashes into the miniature town, scientists use special instruments to measure the impact of the water on the objects.

“Tsunamis are very difficult to measure in the real world because they don’t happen very often and when they do, they happen very fast,” says Alicia Lyman-Holt, who organizes tours of the wave lab for students and other visitors. “That’s why scientists use models to study them. Models are a substitute for direct observation.” These experiments will help make people safer the next time a tsunami happens.
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Arrange for school tours of the Hinsdale Wave Research Lab here.

See tsunami wave tests in action at OSU’s Hinsdale Wave Research Lab in a video produced by the National Science Foundation.

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