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Three-dimensional models now under development by the UB research group show how the thickness of moving material changed within the first few seconds of the 1963 avalanche at Little Tahoma.

  Virtual Volcanoes
Harnessing advanced technologies to save lives

By Ellen Goldbaum

  Computer model created by UB scientists shows flow paths of 1963 avalanche at Little Tahoma Peak, Mt. Rainier, Washington.
Technologies ranging from mathematical modeling, geologic simulation and geographic information science to scientific computing and virtual reality are being combined by University at Buffalo researchers for the first time to provide the most accurate information on geologic dangers to scientists, civil-defense authorities and citizens who live in the shadow of volcanoes.

The highly ambitious, multidisciplinary work, which involves creation of simulations of active volcanoes, is being conducted under a three-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Information Technology Research (ITR) Program.

Coordinating with counterparts in Mexico and focusing on three volcanoes in that country, researchers with the Center for Computational Research, National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis and the New York State Center for Engineering Design and Industrial Innovation (NYSCEDII) are simulating rock avalanches, pyroclastic flows and debris flows.

The team is focusing on Popocatepetl, considered the planet's riskiest volcano; Colima, Mexico's most active volcano; and Pico de Orizaba, North America's tallest volcano. They are working in collaboration with investigators at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Centro Nacional de Prevencion de Desastres, Proteccion Civil de Veracruz and Universidad de Colima.

At a time when more people than ever before in the U.S. and around the world are living close to active volcanoes, advanced technologies for estimating and mitigating risks from volcanic activity hold enormous promise for safeguarding human lives, says Michael F. Sheridan, UB professor of geology and a member of the team. However, he adds, volcanologists have been slow to harness the benefits of information technologies.

Sheridan, who has spent the past decade developing small-scale computer simulations of geologic activity in Mexico and who has worked with and been honored by the Mexican government for his assistance, has long advocated that the risks posed to human life by volcanic flows could be greatly mitigated by creating large-scale simulations of these phenomena.

Volcanic eruptions can result in the deaths of many thousands of people. In 1985, debris flows resulting from the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia caused the deaths of 26,000 people. While a hazard map outlining safety zones existed for the area, the residents were unaware of it.

"The purpose of this grant is to take advantage of technology so that that kind of tragedy does not happen again," Sheridan states. While the focus is on Mexican volcanoes, he says research results will be transferable to other volcanoes around the globe.

Sheridan explains that the traditional tension between geoscientists and the world of high-powered computation has hindered efforts to secure funding for similar projects.

"It's very difficult to obtain funding for computer simulation of geoscientific phenomena," he says. "We finally were successful with the interdisciplinary approach because we are taking the theme of volcanoes and integrating it with other fields.

"I would not be able to do this research at another institution," Sheridan notes. "The combination of expertise at UB and the remarkable willingness of leading researchers to pool their talents is simply extraordinary."

While multidisciplinary research is a buzzword at universities and funding agencies, the unusually broad representation of disciplines among the UB researchers on this project presented a potential obstacle to seeing it funded.

"This project is not mainly computer science nor mathematics nor geology," explains Abani Patra, UB associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and principal investigator on the grant. "Our group and the research we wanted to pursue didn't fit into any one box. Every person's talents are necessary. The project needs all of us."

Patra said the stunning complexity of volcanoes requires that scientists from a broad range of disciplines be involved in such a project. Patra, whose expertise lies in computational mathematics and mechanics, will use novel methods to work on large-scale numerical computations. The output of these computations will be very large datasets that must be converted into suitable visual formats for users ranging from scientists to public-safety planners.

"What's interesting and difficult about trying to do these simulations," he explains, "is that you have to consider so many complex variables: the rough terrain, the complex mix of solids and fluids, and a whole range of things happening at multiple scales. The small end of the scale in a volcanic simulation is on the order of meters and the large scale is on the order of kilometers. That's a difference of three or four magnitudes," Patra adds.

"Using modeling and computations to simulate phenomena across five orders of magnitude is a huge challenge," says E. Bruce Pitman, coinvestigator, professor of mathematics and UB vice provost for educational technology.

"Whether it's an application dealing with integrated circuits with a range from nano-meters to centimeters, or an application like these geophysical phenomena with scales ranging from centimeters to kilometers, in many ways understanding physics that spans several length and time scales is the central problem in science today."

The team's purpose is further complicated by its goal to develop simulations for two drastically different classes of users—scientists and policymakers—so that detailed, technical data about the flows of a particular volcano under specific conditions are available to government officials who must make critical evacuation decisions and to civilians in affected areas so that they can understand how they may be affected by volcanic activity.

"For that reason, we will be working directly with civil-defense authorities, people at the front lines, so that the end result is absolutely ‘user-friendly,'" says Sheridan.

Turning the large datasets into three-dimensional visualizations that people can explore is the task before the UB researchers involved in developing virtual reality tools, led by Christina Bloebaum, director of NYSCEDII, and Thenkurussi ("Kesh") Kesavadas, UB assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Bloebaum also is UB Chair for Competitive Product and Process Design and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The researchers will use detailed satellite data from volcanoes to develop realistic, three-dimensional models and simulations of geophysical mass flows. They will integrate simulation results, remote sensing data and geographic-information system data—such as population centers, transportation networks and utility lines—to organize and present the information in a range of formats for scientists, decision makers and, ultimately, citizens.

By necessity, the research also will result in development of data-management and storage tools with applications in diverse fields, such as nontraditional computational methods for simulating complex physical phenomena. It will result in a better understanding of the physics of granular flows; myriad virtual reality tools; collaborative software that will allow multiple users in different locations to research dynamic, complex, visual data in real time; better integration of simulations with geographic-information science data; and new high-performance computational tools for the storage, manipulation and visualization of vast amounts of data.

The goal is a quantum advance in the ways that the risk of a volcanic eruption can be mitigated, according to Sheridan.

"Right now, the best models for simulating eruptions are one-dimensional and they don't account for flow that spreads over the complex surface of the earth," he says. "The models we are developing now are next generation; they will be a real cut above anything that's been done before."

Other UB coinvestigators on the project are Marcus Bursik, professor of geology; Matthew Jones, computational scientist in the Center for Computational Research; David Mark, professor of geography and director of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis; and Eliot Winer, associate director of NYSCEDII and research assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Ellen Goldbaum is senior science editor, UB Office of News Services.

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