Winter Issue — February 2008
“Together with Murat Saatcioglu, we were part of the first scientific team into Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the Boxing Day tsunami,” says Ioan Nistor, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering.
Nistor studied the impact of the December 2004 tsunami, which was caused by an underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. More than 280,000 people were killed—the worst natural disaster in modern times. Nistor specializes in the numerical modelling of tsunamis and storm surges, like the one caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Working in coastal engineering and hydraulic engineering, Nistor’s work can predict how far and how fast the tsunami-induced flooding will move inland. This information gives planners a picture of the damage that can be expected from a tsunami or storm surge. It also helps them design warning systems and to draw up plans that can minimize the impact of flooding.
One of Nistor’s ideas is to promote “vertical evacuation.” Because tsunamis can strike quickly, it’s impossible to evacuate a large urban area in time. But, Nistor says, “evacuating people by climbing into downtown towers in places prone to tsunamis such as Vancouver, could save lives.”
Since the Boxing Day tsunami, Nistor has worked in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Tanzania as part of a global team under the umbrella of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). Japan is the country with the most recorded tsunamis in the world and it is the global leader in tsunami research. While his colleagues come from three Japanese universities and seven Asian ones, Nistor is also collaborating with researchers at the University of Alaska on the numerical modelling of tsunamis.
“Tsunamis are a global problem, so it makes sense to have a global team to tackle them,” says Nistor.
Nistor’s work also feeds into research work by his colleagues working under the auspices of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. Together with his colleague, Dan Palermo, a structural engineering professor, he focuses on quantifying the impact of killer waves on civil structures. Using sophisticated numerical models and experimental models, like the ones developed by Nistor, engineers can simulate tsunami and storm surge impacts and incorporate them in building design.
A graduate student being jointly supervised by Nistor and Palermo travelled to Venice in June 2007 to present a paper on the impact of tsunamis on structures. “It was an awesome experience” says Younes Nouri, who started his academic career at Iran’s Tehran University. “I had a chance to meet big names in the field who I had only read about.”
Nouri’s paper was well received, and a number of researchers from the Netherlands, England and Japan plan to use his modelling to test their own work. Nouri started his PhD at Johns Hopkin University in Baltimore in January 2008.
Making the University of Ottawa a centre of excellence for tsunami research will help attract more top students like Nouri and build deeper collaborations between the University and the global research community. But Nistor also points out that there is more at stake for Canada.
“The western seaboard of Canada is at risk from tsunamis. The last major one hit in 1700, and these things occur cyclically. We need to make sure we are ready for the next big one,” says Nistor.