Engineering solutions provided by a new wave research laboratory at the University of South Alabama’s College of Engineering could save the nation’s coastal states billions of dollars in damage to beaches, roadways, buildings and other structures vulnerable to storm waves and surges.
As part of USA’s Coastal Transportation Engineering Research and Education Center (CTEREC), the wave laboratory will serve as a tool for both research and education of civil engineers nationwide.
College of Engineering Makes Waves - From left, Dr. Scott Douglass, director of USA’s Coastal Transportation Engineering Research and Education Center, celebrates the recent completion of the College of Engineering’s Wave Research Laboratory with graduate student Patrick Keith of Gulf Shores, and civil engineering undergraduates Joel Richards of Mobile and Cardi Mobley of Birmingham.
With funding from the Federal Highway Administration, the lab could potentially save millions in public and private dollars in Alabama alone through the development and testing of new coastal engineering methods, and by educating the state’s civil engineers on how to better protect coastal structures against future hurricanes.
“This state-of-the-art wave research facility gives USA and our Coastal Transportation Engineering Research and Education Center wonderful new opportunities to advance our understanding of how waves and storms affect beaches, transportation infrastructure, and other aspects of the Gulf Coast,” said Dr. John Steadman, dean of the College of Engineering. “It is a great tribute to Dr. Scott Douglass, the director of the center, and his colleagues who have built a national reputation based on outstanding research and publications over the past several years."
Custom designed by civil engineering faculty with the help of undergraduate students, the wave laboratory is the only one of its kind in Alabama’s universities, and one of only a handful nationwide. It features an innovative wave basin, which resembles a miniature beach, and a large mechanical arm that generates artificial waves. The basin is 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, and holds more than 5,000 gallons of water and approximately 20 tons of sand. Using a computer, USA researchers can simulate several types of waves, including gentle Gulf waves, storm waves that erode beaches and cause dangerous rip currents, and tsunamis.
Some of the issues CTEREC and the USA Wave Research Laboratory plan to address are coastal roadway design, storm-water runoff management and beach erosion. Researchers will also study wave phenomena such as coastal storm surges, tsunamis and rip currents, and their impact on the coastal environment and its structures.
As the only university in the state with an emphasis on the coastal aspects of civil engineering, USA is growing increasingly important as a resource on coastal issues both locally and nationally. Devastating and costly natural disasters such as hurricanes led the FHWA to support coastal engineering research at USA.
With a special interest in protection of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, the agency has contributed more than $4 million to CTEREC over the last four years. According to Happy Fulford, executive director of governmental relations at USA, FHWA funding for the University’s research center is the result of a direct appropriation acquired by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby.
This investment in coastal research at USA is minimal when compared to crippling economic and ecological damage caused by recent coastal storms. The 2004 hurricane season alone caused more than $1 billion in damage to roads and billions more to buildings. These figures don’t include billions in revenue lost to coastal communities, many of which depend on tourist dollars.
According to recent figures from CTEREC, there are over 60,000 miles of highways in the United States that are at risk from coastal storms. With hurricane activity likely to remain high in the coming years, research into methods of design and construction to make these coastal roads more hurricane resistant is necessary.
According to Douglass, some of CTEREC’s recommendations have already been implemented both locally and nationally.
In the days immediately following the destruction caused by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, Douglass and other CTEREC researchers assembled a national team of experts to do an impact assessment on coastal highways. Based on CTEREC’s findings and subsequent recommendations, the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Florida Department of Transportation modified some of their post-Ivan repair designs to better protect coastal roads from future storms.
Douglass said that innovations in coastal civil engineering born out of CTEREC and the USA Wave Research Laboratory means less ecological and economical damage to coastlines nationwide.
“The Gulf Coast and other coastal areas nationwide present unique environmental challenges to coastal civil engineers,” he said. “That’s why CTEREC and researchers in the Wave Research Laboratory at USA are dedicated to educating these professionals on how to better engineer roads and beaches so that the environment we love to see and enjoy isn’t destroyed.”