Mason Team Looking at How Nature Helps Protect Against Hurricanes
August 24, 2015 / by Michele McDonald
Dr. Eleonore Paquier (left) and Jana Haddad collecting data in the Chesapeake Bay.
Hurricane Sandy revealed how vulnerable traditional hurricane protection methods are when it smashed New York Harbor with 32-foot high waves in 2012.
At least 185 people in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean died from the hurricane, which caused $65 billion in economic losses.
"The traditional approach was to rely solely on hard engineering structures, which are expensive and sometimes ineffective," said water resources engineering professor Celso Ferreira of George Mason University's Volgenau School of Engineering. "After Hurricane Sandy, there was a big move to look at a hybrid approach that uses nature to enhance flood defenses."
Ferreira and his student team pulled on waders and hip boots last month to begin installing instruments that measure wave action, storm surges, tides and other details in the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay. It's hot muddy work with more than a few mosquitos.
Marshes provide natural protection from the flooding that hurricanes bring. But which plants work best, how many, and how far they should stretch from the shore is a question for this Mason team of civil engineers, who have more than $500,000 in grants from the Department of the Interior, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Thomas F. and Kate Miller Jeffress Memorial Trust for Interdisciplinary Research to find the answers. Their findings could change the way coastal areas are protected from hurricanes.
"We are investigating how we can effectively use nature-based defenses for engineering coastal defenses so we can maximize protection when a hurricane hits. Plants need to be in the right place at the right time," said Ferreira, who grew up surfing in his native Brazil and found combining his love for water with engineering to be a natural fit.
Ferreira was working on his doctorate in 2008 at Texas A&M University when Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast, prompting him to study hurricanes.
The team will be working on this project for at least the next two hurricane seasons. Peak hurricane season is generally from mid-August to mid-September for the East Coast and Eastern Caribbean, and mid-August to early November for the Western Caribbean.
Anne-Eléonore Paquier came from France last month to work as a postdoctoral student on the project to oversee the fieldwork.
"Hurricanes are exciting," said Paquier, an avid snorkeler and hiker who grew up near the sea in Marseille and studied seagrass meadows, which are simply meadows but underwater. "I want to see that wave coming."
How those waves interact with marshes during hurricanes and coastal flooding is simulated with computer models created by the team, including graduate research assistant Jana Haddad, who earned her civil engineering degree from Mason in May.
"I think what draws me to the work is the complexity involved," said Haddad, who's from Fairfax, Va. "Many factors can impact the way water moves over marshes, and there is so much room for progress in defining that well."
Some measuring devices used by the team ride the waves and are smaller than a hand but can hold months of data about wave surges.
Lindsey Keller helps with both the computer model and the fieldwork, bringing some of the plants from the bay into the lab. The plants are studied and added to the computer models.
"It's really neat to see your computer modeling come to life," said the senior civil engineering major from Frederick, Md.
Keller started her college education as a marine scientist in South Carolina and later wanted to become an engineer like her dad. She thought she had left the ocean behind until she took an engineering class from Ferreira.
"I feel like I'm learning so much more than just being in the classroom," Keller said.
Mason students and professors are tackling other flooding projects, including floating wetlands and stormwater monitoring.
A version of this story by Michele McDonald appeared on the Mason website on August 24, 2015