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Viterbi Experts Present Findings in Wake of Japan Catastrophe

Specialists in tsunamis and nuclear safety focus on potential California/U.S. consequences
Lisa Heckaman
March 25, 2011 —

Within hours of Japan's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11, USC scientists from the Viterbi School's Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering were heading to coastal communities from Oregon to Southern California to survey damage.  

Astani Department experts Costas Synolakis, Jose Borerro and Jean-Pierre Bardet at the March 18 press briefing.
Tsunami Research Center (TRC) director Costas Synolakis, the co-inventor of a widely used tsunami modeling system, and researchers Jose Borrero, Aggeliki Barberopoulou and Lesley Ewing presented some of their preliminary findings at a well-attended press briefing one week after the earthquake.

Also speaking were  Najmedin Meshkati, a nuclear safety expert who previously investigated Chernobyl who also has an appointment in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and Jean-Pierre Bardet, chair of the Astani Department who acted as moderator.

"This will be our best data set of response in California from a far-afield tsunami yet," said Borrero, a tsunami researcher long associated with the Tsunami Research Center, who is currently with the consulting firm ASR Limited.  Borrero  traveled the length of the California coast looking at damage in the week following the quake.

The state of California published a map showing areas at risk during certain tsunami scenarios. Borerro looked at real-time assessments of the tsunami in both California and New Zealand.  He praised and criticized statewide response to tsunami. Low tides saved the day,” he said, explaining that high tides could have magnified the effect of the ocean swell. See a video of Borerro during the briefing here.

Although the impact of the tsunami in California was far less than the impact in

Click on image to view TRC press coverage
Japan, the California Emergency Management Agency estimated that surges induced by the Japanese earthquake resulted in $44 million in damage to coastal California, especially to Crescent City and Santa Cruz.

Synolakis focused on the risk posed by tsunamis caused by undersea landslides off the California coast and said he would like to see more precautionary measures taken, such as using a tsunamograph to give a better idea of the duration of tsunami waves, and gauges to measure currents in ports. 

"Tsunamis caused by underwater landslides off Southern California could reach as high as 40 feet, although they would be localized and quick to dissipate," said Synolakis. USC researchers estimate that a tsunami created by an offshore quake could cost the region $7 billion to $40 billion from port closures alone. But Synolakis also added that the offshore earthquake zone close to the ports is not capable of producing an earthquake of the magnitude 8.9 quake that devastated northeast Japan. However, regions farther north, from the California-Oregon border to British Columbia, are at risk from an earthquake that could be that strong.

Scientists at federal agencies are using the modeling system that Synolakis helped develop with Vasily Titov.  Called MOST (Method of Splitting Tsunami), it helps predict how tsunamis will develop. The system has vastly improved predictions of tsunami behavior and effects, including wavelength and amplitude and as a result, tsunami warnings are more detailed and accurate said Synolakis.

TRC's Aggeliki Barberopoulou
In 2005, Viterbi scientists estimated that a major tsunami in Southern California could cause up to $40 billion in damages including disruption to freeways and ports. A shutdown of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports could cost $1 billion a day.

The Tsunami Reseach Center said steps should be taken to help prepare Californians for a future disaster. “[Caltrans] had no information for people who wanted to know if it was safe to drive along Highway 1,” said TRC Researcher Lesley Ewing. (State Route 1 runs along most of California's coast.)

"In a year or two, the public opinion will still be negative, but there are some energy realities that may dictate the future," said nuclear safety expert Najmedin Meshkati. "The most imaginative engineers in the world couldn't have dreamed up a situation like this"

Meshkati quoted Aristotle:  "Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities." He responded to many questions during the session . Meshkati details these findings in an article published post-briefing.

He said that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster could result in the Japanese  demanding more scrutiny of the nuclear power industry. "They may ask for more openness and transparency about where to place nuclear power plants and how to oversee their safety. The negative public opinion has some merit. People should question the safety of these plants."

Aggeliki Barberopoulou of the TRC presented her findings regarding the accuracy of simulations of earthquake effects. Barberopoulou's Simulation Research can be found here.  "I was actually shocked to see all the damage the waves had caused after the earthquake," she said, "because the damage didn't match up with initial estimates of the earthquake's

Click on image to view reactor press coverage
magnitude, which were a magnitude lower than current estimates." Barberopoulou also presented findings dealing with the damaging effects that the tsunami had on the Catalina Islands and surrounding communities.

The briefing concluded with a Q&A moderated by Jean-Pierre Bardet, a  expert on urban infrastructures.  LA Weekly quoted Bardet: "This is the quake that will produce the largest amount of data to date," Bardet says. "We have an opportunity to draw lessons to make L.A. a safer city."

Local and national press outlets attending included news crews from NBC, Fox News, KTLA, the LA Times, Annenberg TV News, KPPC 89.3, Associated Press, The China Press and the Los Angeles bureau of NHK Japan Television.

Viterbi experts were available and prepared to respond to international and domestic media requests following the Japan events. For more information on the Press Briefing, please visit the Tsunami Research Center, or contact the Viterbi Communications Team.