USC Experts Present Findings From Japan’s Quake
Within hours of Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11, scientists from the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the USC School of Engineering were heading to coastal communities to survey damage.
USC Tsunami Research Center director Costas Synolakis, 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 press briefing one week after the devastating quake.
Also speaking were USC Viterbi professor Najmedin Meshkati, a nuclear power expert who previously investigated Chernobyl, and Jean-Pierre Bardet, chair of the Astani Department, who served 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 currently works with the consulting firm ASR Limited. Borrero traveled the length of the California coast looking at damage in the week following the quake.
Borerro looked at real-time assessments of the tsunami in California and New Zealand.
“Low tides saved the day,” he said, explaining that high tides could have magnified the effect of the ocean swell.
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 an apparatus to give a better idea of the duration of tsunami waves.
“Tsunamis caused by underwater landslides off Southern California could reach as high as 40 feet, although they would be localized and quick to dissipate,” Synolakis said.
USC researchers estimated that a tsunami created by an offshore quake could cost the region $7 billion to $40 billion from port closures alone. However, Synolakis added that the offshore earthquake zone close to the ports is not capable of producing an earthquake of the magnitude 9.0 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 Method of Splitting Tsunami, a modeling system that can help to predict how tsunamis will develop. The system has improved predictions of tsunami behavior and effects, including wavelength and amplitude. As a result, tsunami warnings are more detailed and accurate, according to Synolakis.
In 2005, USC 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, officials said.
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 researcher Ewing. (The highway runs along most of California’s coast.)
Barberopoulou presented her findings regarding the accuracy of simulations of earthquake effects.
“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 magnitude, which were a magnitude lower than current estimates.”
She also presented findings dealing with the damaging effects that the tsunami had on the Catalina Islands and surrounding communities.
“In a year or two, the public opinion will still be negative, but there are some energy realities that may dictate the future,” said Meshkati, who has been widely quoted in coverage of the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis. “The most imaginative engineers in the world couldn’t have dreamed up a situation like this.”
Meshkati said that the Fukushima disaster could result in a Japanese demand for 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,” he said. “The negative public opinion has some merit. People should question the safety of these plants.”
The briefing concluded with a Q&A session moderated by Bardet, an expert on urban infrastructures.
“This is the quake that will produce the largest amount of data to date.” Bardet said. “We have an opportunity to draw lessons to make L.A. a safer city.”