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Catch A Wave

Tsunami Expert Patrick Lynett Travels the Globe to Better Understand and Protect Against Waves of Destruction
By Marc Ballon
July 19, 2013 —

Patrick Lynett in the field in the Galapagos Islands
Growing up, New Jersey-native Patrick Lynett used to spend his summers on the Jersey Shore, enjoying the Boardwalk and beaches.

However, the future John and Dorothy Shea Early Career Chair in Civil Engineering at USC also has less pleasant memories: medical waste and garbage littering the shoreline and encountering sewage streamers during fishing trips.

“All of that left a mark on my mind,” Lynett said. “I wanted to understand the environmental behavior and the physics of the coast. How did that stuff get there? Why was it there? How did something like this happen?”

For nearly 15 years, the 38-year-old scholar has grappled with these and other questions. As one of the world’s foremost experts on tsunamis, Lynett has traveled the globe to gain a better understanding of the physical behavior of the coastal zone, with a particular focus on extreme and damaging events. For his research – which focuses on destructive tsunami-created water flows around coastal structures and water currents and whirlpools in ports and harbors – he leverages historical data, uses hydraulic computer modeling and conducts experiments by flooding entire miniature cities.

A scholar on the move, Lynett traveled to Sri Lanka in 2005 to survey damage and ascertain the tsunami’s height as it pushed inland. That same year, he visited New Orleans as part of the Hurricane Katrina Coastal Impacts Survey Team. Lynett also participated in the post-tsunami survey team in American Samoa in 2009 and numerous surveys throughout the Pacific after the 2011 Japan tsunami.

The holder of three degrees from Cornell University, Lynett has led research projects that have received more than $8 million in funding, including grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Geological Survey and private industry, among other entities. The past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, this year he won the ASCE Walter L. Huber Engineering Research Prize “for pioneering research in wave modeling and prediction that led to new methods for quantifying tsunami inundation and hurricane waver overtopping.”

“He has an outstanding reputation among tsunami researchers,” said Henry Jones, a hydrologist for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission who has collaborated with Lynett for the past six years. Lynett, who has performed comprehensive tsunami modeling for several proposed nuclear reactors, “does a good job of going step-by-step and laying out different scenarios.”

Tsunami Expert Patrick Lynett
Lynett has done pioneering work on how the shapes of buildings and their position on the coastline can impact their ability to withstand the surge created by a tsunami.

U-shaped structures, for instance, catch water and focus the tsunami’s impact, increasing the building’s vulnerability. Lynett’s research has also helped explain why buildings nearest to the coast often fare better in a tsunami than those directly behind them: water funneled between the first row buildings picks up considerable speed, sometimes moving with a force up to 100 times faster, flattening the structures behind them.

To mitigate a tsunami’s damage, Lynett and a growing number of civil engineers believe vulnerable coastal areas in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere should consider building regulations for massively destructive waves. Lynett currently plays an important role in an American Society of Civil Engineers-led team putting together recommended tsunami building design codes.

“Right now, there are no such codes in existence, and somebody can go down to the beach and build a structure in a tsunami-prone area,” Lynett says. “I don’t think that makes too much sense.”

Southern California, unlike Oregon and Washington, appears at low risk of experiencing a Japan-like tsunami that would devastate the coast and kill tens of thousands. That’s because the types of underwater earthquakes that cause tsunamis by pushing plates upward vertically don’t typically occur in the region. Instead, plates usually move horizontally.

Still, tsunamis thousands of miles away can cause significant damage here. Currents from the Japanese tsunami, for instance, caused millions of dollars in damage at 27 California harbors. Elsewhere, tsunami currents have ripped oil tankers and other large ships from their mooring, dangerously spinning them around ports and harbors for hours and nearly smashing them into wharves and other structures.

With funding from the California Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Geological Survey, Lynett and USC Viterbi adjunct Research Professor Jose Borrero, among others, are working with other tsunami experts to evaluate the potential impact within California ports and harbors of currents generated by tsunamis.

Results will help officials create hazard maps for ports, harbors and marinas, including suggestions about where oil tankers and other such valuable assets should reside to decrease the likelihood of becoming unmoored in a disaster.

“Dr. Lynett is a tremendous collaborator, very aware of what would help the public during future large coastal events,” said Rick Wilson, who is working with Lynett on the California tsunami preparedness project. “Without Dr. Lynett’s help, I don’t think our maritime projects would be as valuable.”

Just weeks after earning his Ph.D. from Cornell, Lynett joined the faculty at Texas A&M University. After nearly a decade there, he came to USC in August 2011 because of the excellence of its faculty and proximity to the coast.

Given his knowledge of the sea’s power, unpredictability and potential for destruction, Lynett has a surprisingly benign attitude toward it.

“When you understand the ocean, you don’t get quite as scared,” he said. “You just know how to recognize danger signs and react. And respect. Always respect it.”