Uncertainty Analysis Is Key to Predicting Severity of Floods, Sedimentation

Release Date: September 3, 2008 This content is archived.


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Christina Tsai's research will help mitigate damage resulting from flooding after hurricanes and other extreme flow events.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- People who live in flood-prone areas naturally aren't thrilled about the uncertainty they must cope with each hurricane season, but research conducted by a University at Buffalo engineer is based on the idea that a better understanding of this uncertainty is key to helping mitigate damage from floods.

Christina Tsai, Ph.D., associate professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is developing new mathematical and computer models that will better reflect the uncertainty of flow events and the likelihood of sedimentation, providing emergency planners with more precise data.

Her work, called uncertainty analysis, is geared toward creating more precise predictions of how such extreme flow events near lakes and rivers will impact urban areas, through the development and use of fundamental engineering principles, mathematical models and numerical techniques.

While sophisticated deterministic models for sediment transport and water quality modeling are available nowadays, Tsai said, the predictions that they produce are likely to be associated with errors and uncertainty, as flooding and sediment transport involve a multitude of highly varying and random factors.

"Our ultimate goal is to provide emergency managers with new scientific tools that can help them to better determine the level of risk for local communities posed by extreme flow events, such as hurricane-induced floods," she continued. "The new tools also will more precisely reflect how significant is the potential for specific levels of contamination and sedimentation in rivers and lakes."

Changes in sedimentation as a result of floods can alter the natural morphology of bodies of water, leading to erosion and increased contamination near shorelines.

"The model I am proposing will treat contamination and sedimentation processes as random variables influenced by factors such as flow turbulence and the uncertainty surrounding when and how floods will occur," she said. "As a result, it is likely to result in a more comprehensive description of these processes."

Tsai's project is the result of a prestigious $407,921 Faculty Early Career Development Award she received recently from the National Science Foundation. According to the NSF, the CAREER program recognizes and supports the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars "who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century."

Her work is closely aligned with "Extreme Events: Mitigation and Response," identified as one of UB's academic strengths during the university's UB 2020 strategic planning process.

The NSF grant also supports Tsai's development of more quantitative courses in this area as well as increased exposure for students to cross-disciplinary training in mathematical geoscience.

Founded in 1946, the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has 150 faculty members and an enrollment of more than 2,300 students. UB Engineering offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in six departments. The school's annual research expenditures are approximately $50 million; its per-faculty research expenditure puts it in the top 10 percent of U.S. engineering schools, according to data from the National Science Foundation. UB Engineering works with corporate partners in a variety of ways ranging from joint research ventures, to continuing education, to co-op work arrangements for students.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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