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August 6, 2002

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, contact the public information officer at the end of each item at (703) 292-8070. Editor: Josh Chamot

Team in South Pacific Studies Source of Historic Tsunami

Researchers are scouring the South Pacific and interviewing elderly islanders to find out what caused a historic tsunami. The massive tidal wave originated in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska on April 1, 1946, but had repercussions thousands of miles away. It produced the highest waves ever recorded in Hawaii, where it killed 159 people.

Seeking information about the damage from the giant waves, Costas Synolakis of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and Emile Okal of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, are investigating the fog-shrouded Aleutians - the area of the epicenter - and tropical islands much farther south. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting this research.

On the treeless Aleutian islands of Unimak and Sanak, the scientists have mapped large logs of driftwood deposited up to 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) inland, at altitudes reaching 42 meters (138 feet).

The team has also interviewed scores of elderly residents from the Marquesas Islands, a chain in French Polynesia; remote Easter Island, more than 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) west of the coast of Chile; and the Juan Fernandez Islands, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of Chile. The researchers translated people's memories of the 1946 flood levels into a quantitative database.

The researchers suspect the underlying geophysical activity included both a very slow seismic rupture and a major underwater landslide near the epicenter. They plan to report their findings at a future meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The data will feed models for predicting the effects from future Pacific tsunamis on Hawaii and on the mainland U.S. coast. [Amber Jones]

For more information, see: http://www.usc.edu/dept/tsunamis/1946 and http://www.earth.nwu.edu/people/emile/

Mrs. Catherine Barsinas, 64, shows the researchers how far inland the 1946 tsunami inundated the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas.
Interview with Mrs. Catherine Barsinas, 64, a witness of the damage wrought on the Island of Hiva Oa by the large 1946 Aleutian tsunami. The witness has led the researchers along a road up a valley to the exact limit of inundation by the wave. The distance to the shore (328 m) and altitude (6.7 m) of this location were measured using surveying methods and entered into the database which will allow researchers to model the generation and propagation of the tsunami across the Pacific Ocean.
From left to right: Daniel Rousseau (Summer Intern, University of Southern California) recording the interview on video tape; Mrs. Barsinas; Professor Costas Synolakis (University of Southern California) taking GPS measurements; Professor Emile Okal (Northwestern University) leading the interview; Mr. Barsinas; Dr. Grard Guille (Commissariat l'Energie Atomique, France).
Photo credit: G. Fryer
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Ronald Wilson (left), 65, describes locations where the 1946 tsunami deposited driftwood on treeless Sanak Island in the Aleutians.
Interview with Ronald Wilson, 65, an eyewitness of the 1946 tsunami. On the picture, Mr. Wilson (left) points to a topo map of the Island of Sanak, and describes to Professor Emile Okal of Northwestern University (right) locations where the tsunami deposited driftwood on this otherwise treeless island. The field location is shown by the symbol on the map of Alaska in the background.
Photo credit: Costas Synolakis, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
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Driftwood deposited by the 1946 tsunami 412 meters from shore on the treeless Aleutian Island of Unimak.
Driftwood identified as watermark from inundation by 1946 tsunami on Unimak Island. On this treeless island, this stump was deposited at an altitude of 40 m, and a distance of 412 m from the shore (visible at far right). Left to right: Dr. George Plafker (US Geological Survey, retired; Prof. Emile Okal, Northwestern University; Professor Costas Synolakis, University of Southern California). In the distance, partly shrouded in clouds, Shishaldin Volcano.
Photo credit: S. Egli
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Summer Sport for Father-Son Team Means Shooting Lasers to Assess Structural Safety

Civil engineer David Bloomquist of the University of Florida recruited a father-son team to help evaluate a new laser imager's ability to diagnose structural damage. Last fall, the OPTECH laser was field tested at the World Trade Center and Pentagon sites where it was used to "map" building damage with high-resolution, 3-D images. NSF supported the data analysis.

The recruits are William Scott, winner of Florida's teacher-of-the-year award for 2002, who teaches science and physics at the University of Florida's P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School for K-12 students, and his son, Ian Scott, an industrial engineering student and star football player at the university. Civil engineering students Laura DeAngelo and Jonathan Sanek have joined them for the summer project.

The crew will conduct their research in the Gainseville area of Florida, conducting pre- and post-damage assessments of burned wood-frame structures and distressed concrete walls. Back in the lab, the team will also analyze buckled steel beams.

Comparison of before-and-after pictures and spatial coordinates can help engineers rapidly estimate a structure's stability during rescue and recovery efforts, Bloomquist said. Eventually, the laser technique could help civil and construction engineers develop better designs for urban structures and methods to minimize damage from explosions, fires and other disasters. [Amber Jones]

In their summer program, Jonathan Sanek, Ian Scott, and Laura DeAngelo will be using an OPTECH, Inc. 3-D laser imager to assess damage to structures.
In their summer program, Jonathan Sanek, Ian Scott, and Laura DeAngelo will be using an OPTECH, Inc. 3-D laser imager to assess damage to structures.
Photo Credit: Brian Anderson, Univ. of Florida
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Science Teachers Experience the Arctic

While her colleagues were basking in the summer's heat, science teacher Kim Hanisch was watching snow fall in a summer squall that was part of the changing weather on Alaska's North Slope.

Hanisch, who teaches at Ogallala High School in Ogallala, Nebraska, is studying Arctic birds as one of six teachers doing research in the Arctic this year as part of the NSF Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic (TEA) program. Three teachers, from Vermont, Washington state, and Ohio are studying global climate change, glaciers and antifreeze proteins in insects. Two teachers have already completed their experience this season: a science teacher from Table, North Carolina, who has been studying the relationship between vegetation and snow pack across Alaska, and a science teacher at the Washington School for the Deaf in Portland, Oregon, who has been studying lake ice growth and decay.

Through the TEA program, teachers boost their own research skills and learn ways to engage students in topics related to polar research. The program, facilitated by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Rice University in Houston, Texas, has established a collaborative polar learning community of teachers, students, administrators and interested members of the public. [Bill Harms]

To follow the teachers in the field, please see: http://tea.rice.edu

Dallas Trople, a high school science teacher in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, measures elevations at a research site in Alaska, where he is part of a team studying changes in topography brought on by a melting glacier.
Dallas Trople, a high school science teacher in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, measures elevations at a research site in Alaska, where he is part of a team studying changes in topography brought on by a melting glacier.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy Dallas Trople
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Dallas Trople, high school science teacher in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, packs up his gear for a day of work studying the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska.
Dallas Trople, high school science teacher in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, packs up his gear for a day of work studying the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska.
Credit: Photo courtesy Dallas Trople
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