New “Hurricane” Wavemaker Installed at OSU


CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University has completed installation of a new $1.1 million “hurricane” wavemaker that’s the largest of its type in the nation, able to more accurately simulate the types of waves and flooding that can cause billions of dollars in damage.

Researchers plan to use the new technology in a series of major research projects, involving scientists from all over the world, to study the impact of hurricanes and tsunamis on structures and how these events lead to flooding that can overtop a levee or cause severe coastal erosion.

The new system was funded by the National Science Foundation. The state of Oregon, through its Engineering Technology Innovation Council, also provided another $1 million to upgrade offices and laboratories at the center.

“We now have an advanced research facility that will help us learn more about how to reduce hurricane damage, deal with major storms and prepare for tsunamis,” said Dan Cox, professor of civil engineering and director of the laboratory. “This is a national asset, an investment made here in Oregon in part because the NSF recognizes that we’re committed to sharing the facility in collaboration with other researchers from all over the U.S. and the world.”

The “hurricane” waves produced by the new system are not actually driven by wind, but are “long period,” shallow water waves much like those generated by sustained hurricane-force winds or tsunami events. The previous system was better suited to producing taller waves.

A full schedule of research projects will begin soon. This summer, the new system will be used to study tsunami impacts on wooden structures – a topic of considerable importance to Oregon, which is at significant risk of a tsunami from major earthquakes on the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

This fall, a study will begin on how hurricane-forced waves can overtop levees and what effect that has, in a study funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Another initiative will look at the impact of heavier storms and coastal erosion on vegetation, which may be an increasing concern with the sea level rise anticipated from global warming. And other work is planned to study the survivability and mechanical durability of wave energy systems, in collaboration with OSU scientists and private industry.

The real value of the new system, Cox said, is the size of the wave it can create.

“Because the materials used for coastal construction – wood, concrete and steel – have complicated properties, they cannot be studied easily at small scale,” Cox said. “The new wavemaker is bigger and improves the accuracy of our research and applicability to real-world structures.”

Prior to this, the U.S. had no coastal research facilities able to simulate hurricanes and other extreme storms that were large enough to minimize the effects of scaling. The new large-stroke, piston-type wavemaker will allow precision, large-scale studies, enabling safer and more cost-effective design of coastal infrastructure such as bridges, levees and buildings. This will lead to better practices for the repair and retrofit of existing structures and improved design codes for new construction. The facility will also improve education and outreach to people living in areas susceptible to coastal storms.

More than half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coast and the civil infrastructure along the nation’s coasts, which is worth more than $3 trillion, is vulnerable to coastal storms. According to a 2007 report from the National Science Board, the economic and societal impacts of extreme events such as hurricanes are expected to escalate in coming years.

The Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory is a shared-use, international facility operated by the OSU College of Engineering. No other facility in the U.S. matches the size and performance of the basins, and only a handful of facilities in the world can operate at near-prototype ocean conditions. Due to the lab’s sophisticated information technology systems, researchers worldwide can participate remotely in experiments at the facility.