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Better prediction of extreme marine weather events

Research will help mitigate the damage caused by extreme weather

- June 23, 2011

Jinyu Sheng, a professor in the Department of Oceanography, has been named chair of Modeling and Prediction of Marine Environmental Extremes.
Jinyu Sheng, a professor in the Department of Oceanography, has been named chair of Modeling and Prediction of Marine Environmental Extremes.

Thirty per cent of human civilization lives within 100 kilometres of the coast. Extreme marine events such as hurricanes and storm surges wreak havoc when they occur, just think back to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Ocean Ranger disaster in 1982.

Oil and gas and marine transportation industries are especially vulnerable to these events, in terms of lost capital, environmental damage and loss of life. Coastal and low-lying communities face the prospect of being displaced and local industries shut down with their futures uncertain.

The prediction of these events is a complex and difficult task, but it is becoming more and more crucial. More research is needed to achieve better predictions.

Funding for research program

This is the main reason that The Lloyd's Register Educational Trust (The LRET), an independent charity, is funding a research program in Modeling and Prediction of Marine Environmental Extremes. Jinyu Sheng, professor in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie, has been named as the chair.

“The purpose of the research is to provide more accurate short-term predictions and projections of marine extremes such as coastal flooding, tropical storms, hurricanes and storm surges,” says Dr. Sheng. “The research will help lead to better forecasts of extreme marine events and help decision-makers, scientists and the public mitigate the damage these events can cause.”

The LRET will provide 1.2 million pounds (approx. $2.2 mil Cdn) over five years. It will establish an international  research network centered at Dalhousie that will include partners from research nodes located at the University of Southampton (UK), University of Melbourne (Australia) and the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil).

“Research will look into more reliable short and medium term forecasts of marine environmental extremes and look at the projection or estimation of the frequency of occurrence over the next decades and century,” explains Dr. Sheng. “These projections will help protect the infrastructure, coastal communities and human life.” He says the chair will also present results in a useful way to governments, industry and the public.

The research will make extensive use of coupled models for local and global scales.

“For accurate predictions of the conditions, we need to run weather forecast models for the ocean, atmosphere and ice flows as well,” says Dr. Sheng. “We’re talking about many different types of extremes across the planet so we need different models. The researchers in Brazil and Australia need different models and we see great benefit in combining our research efforts. This is why we have a global network of scientists and meteorologists working with these complexities to provide better forecasts.”

He explains that extreme marine events are often the result of the behavior of a complex and coupled system. By running the models of the system’s components together, the result should be a better prediction. This work should help more than just those making forecasts, such as Environment Canada.

“The information on coastal flooding is not only useful to the general public, but to city planners and decision makers,” says Dr. Sheng. “This will help planners design communities away from high-risk areas and better protect what’s there. It will also help industry design and protect ships, transportation, ocean platforms and so on that will be impacted by the ocean.”

In addition to better forecasts of extreme events like hurricanes and storm surges, the research will also look at the impact of climate change on the frequency of occurrence of marine extremes of wind, coastal sea levels, currents and waves. This will lead to more effective strategies for adaptation to climate change.

Impact on life

“In the next century the global sea level is expected to rise more than one metre and that’s very significant,” says Dr. Sheng. “What will be the impact on the economy, industry and human life and life in general?”

He says other issues such as global warming migration, environmental disasters and insurance have to be considered as well.

“Industry, government and the public need to know about extreme marine events to plan for in the future,” he says. “We hope this research will help prevent accidents and mitigate the effect of marine disasters when they occur. It’s timely and important research and it’s appropriate that it will be centered at Dalhousie.”

Established in 2004 by the Lloyd's Register Group, The LRET is an independent charity operating throughout the world. It funds activities in four categories that form a continuum of support for people from a very young age:

  • Pre-university education - engaging school children
  • University education - supporting students studying for a first degree or doing a masters course
  • Vocational training and professional development - supporting people in work who are enhancing their knowledge and skills
  • Research - funding fundamental industry research programs at existing or new 'centres of excellence' at universities and academic institutes.