UB Team Employs a Panoply of High-Tech Tools to Understand and Predict Devastating Volcanic Flows

Release Date: August 13, 2003 This content is archived.


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UB scientists have developed a 3D visualization from a computer simulation of an avalanche that occurred in 1963 at Little Tahoma Peak. The red section indicates the debris flow from the avalanche. (Click on image for larger version.)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When officials communicate the dangers of volcanic hazards to local populations, one picture may be worth a thousand words.

Keeping that sentiment in mind, scientists at the University at Buffalo working on volcanic hazard mitigation have left no technology untapped as they create images of past volcanic flows in order to better predict future ones.

"You want these pictures to look exactly right," explained Michael F. Sheridan, Ph.D., UB professor of geology. "They can't look 'approximately right;' it's people's lives we're protecting here," he said. "The images depend on an accurate registration of all of the features of the terrain."

To that end, the UB group, which includes mathematicians, geologists, geographers, computational scientists and mechanical and aerospace engineers, stands out as one of the most multidisciplinary - and ambitious -- teams in the world working on volcanic hazard mitigation.

"We're leading the pack in integrating high-performance computation of complex flows with visualization at high-resolution scales, using natural examples from volcanoes to validate our results," said Sheridan.

He noted that other groups working on volcanic hazard mitigation focus on aspects of the problem that are less broad in scope.

The scientists acknowledge the challenges of developing sophisticated simulations of such complex and unpredictable geological events.

"This is a tough thing," said Sheridan, "with such a strong visualization component, our project requires not only number-crunching for complex geologic features, but we want to visualize them in a realistic way so they are as understandable by laypeople as they are by scientists."

UB researchers are developing models, simulations and visualizations of past volcanic eruptions so civil protection authorities can effectively plan for, and communicate to, people how future volcanic disasters might affect their communities. The UB group also is developing Web-based remote

collaborative environments to facilitate the communication process.

The mathematicians and computational scientists used novel computational methods to develop large-scale numerical computations describing the physics of the debris flows. The geographers, geologists and mechanical engineers then applied their skills to these very large datasets to convert them into suitable visual formats for users ranging from scientists to public-safety planners.

In the process, the scientists developed a computer code, called Titan2D, for simulating geophysical flows that is several times more efficient in terms of computer time than prevailing methods.

"We designed our code to run as efficiently from a laptop as it can from UB's 600-node Dell supercomputing cluster," said Abani Patra, Ph.D., UB associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UB and principal investigator on the NSF project.

Titan2D now is available publicly from the UB team and will be distributed to other scientists working on volcanic flows at the Second Workshop on Geophysical Flows being held Aug. 14 and 15 at UB.

Simulations and visualizations that will be demonstrated at the workshop feature demonstrations of dry ash flows at volcanoes, including one that occurred at Mexico's most active volcano, Colima, known as the "volcano of fire" and one of the flow paths of an avalanche at Little Tahoma Peak, Mt. Rainier, Washington.

"With our immersive or VR visualizations, people can 'fly over' the terrain from different angles, so that they can observe the flow occurring in real time, or even faster," explained Thenkurussi Kesavadas, Ph.D., director of UB's Virtual Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Workshop attendees will be able to view the simulations in person at UB and also from remote locations around the globe through the Access Grid in UB's Center for Computational Research. It is the first time that UB will be providing content through the Access Grid, technology that takes advantage of high capacity networks and UB's Internet2 connection.

Tarek Zohdi, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, will deliver his lecture from Berkeley over the grid.

Members of the UB team and workshop organizers also include Marcus Bursik, UB professor of geology; Bruce Pitman, Ph.D., UB professor of mathematics, Christopher Renschler, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of geography, all in UB's College of Arts and Sciences; Christina Bloebaum, Ph.D., UB professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the New York State Center for Engineering Design and Industrial Innovation (NYSCEDII), and Eliot Winer, Ph.D., deputy director of NYSCEDII.

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