World's First Geologic Hazards Facility Being Planned Near Buffalo, N.Y.

Planned facility to allow for study of full-scale volcanoes, other hazards, in controlled setting

Release Date: September 15, 2010


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- To simulate earthquakes, engineers have shake tables. To simulate sub-atomic collisions, physicists have synchrotrons.

Until now, though, there has been no effective way to simulate full-scale volcanic eruptions.

But this weekend, the University at Buffalo's Center for Geohazards Studies will convene a National Science Foundation-funded workshop to plan the world's first international user facility where scientists will be able to test large-scale geologic hazards. A key feature of the user facility is that scientists will be able to use it to do their own research, either in collaboration with UB geologists or independently, whichever is more appropriate for a specific experiment.

The geohazards facility is being developed as one of several scientific field stations at a campus in Ashford, N.Y., about 35 miles from Buffalo, through a joint collaboration between UB's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) and its partner Calspan Corporation. The campus is being developed as a platform for conducting full-scale tests in a range of extreme events.

The idea for a large-scale, geologic hazard experimentation facility was developed by scientists at UB, who comprise one of the world's leading research groups in understanding volcanic eruptions and other geologic hazards.

"Once the idea for this field station began to take shape at UB, I sent out some feelers to about 50 scientists in the global geohazard community in order to gauge their interest," says Greg A. Valentine, PhD, UB professor of geology and director of UB's Center for Geohazards Studies.

"To be honest, I thought people would be ambivalent, preferring to do experiments at their own labs, but the responses have been nothing but enthusiastic," he says. "We've had to turn away some people who wanted to come to the workshop and we were only able to accept 20 percent of the students and postdoctoral applicants who wanted to attend."

Valentine says that the enthusiasm reflects the difficulties that volcanologists and other geoscientists have faced in trying to study geohazards.

"Many geologic processes are impossible to scale down to something you could do in a lab," he says. "As a result, there are two approaches: computer modeling, which has drawbacks because how do you then check models and verify that they are working correctly, or fieldwork at real eruptions. But even if you are able to make measurements at an erupting volcano, you don't know what's happening inside the volcano."

Geohazards that may be simulated at the field station include volcanic plumes, like the one that brought European air travel to a halt last spring, and pyroclastic flows that can be created using volcanic materials and then released down a hillside to measure their speed and potential for causing damage, based on their physical and chemical properties.

Because large-scale, geohazards processes are far too costly for individual investigators to simulate, the idea at UB is for investigators to pool their resources and develop a single facility for that purpose.

"This will be a facility for the international geohazards research community so, in order to make that vision come true, the community has to be involved in designing its infrastructure and deciding what are the research priorities," says Valentine.

Proposals also will be developed in order to attract funding for the construction of the facility.

"That's the purpose behind this weekend's workshop," says Valentine.

And Western New York's harsh winters might turn out to be a plus for realistically assessing what happens during some of the most destructive geologic events, says Valentine.

"A big part of understanding volcanic ash plumes, for example, is understanding what happens when plumes interact with the wind, as we saw last spring when volcanic ash brought air travel to a stop for several days," he continues. "Catastrophic hazards also are created when you have both fire and ice. For example, in Colombia in 1985, the devastating mud flow that killed 25,000 people was caused by a really tiny volcanic eruption, but it deposited this extremely hot material onto a glacier, which then melted very rapidly. That caused the huge mud flow, which devastated an entire town that was between 40 and 60 kilometers away."

A big plus, Valentine notes, is that the Ashford campus has infrastructure, including roads, electricity, water and a machine shop.

While it will take several years and major funding to make the field station a reality, he says that studies of volcanic craters, which would include underground explosions and subsequent excavations, could be done fairly inexpensively and within the next couple of years.

The international effort is being reinforced by VHub, a major NSF-funded project also led by UB, which is developing a community cyberinfrastructure for global collaboration in volcano science and risk mitigation.

VHub will help speed the transfer of new tools developed by volcanologists to the government agencies charged with protecting the public from the hazards of volcanic eruptions.

"The VHub project only started in January, but it's already being used for a variety of international research projects, including work related to last spring's eruption in Iceland," says Valentine. "We'll be using VHub as a way to continue the conversation about the field station, while building new collaborative bridges with scientists around the world."

UB's expertise in volcanology fits within the context of the UB 2020 strategic strength in Extreme Events: Response and Mitigation, a cross-disciplinary effort to foster new scientific ideas throughout different departments and schools at UB and its partner institutions. The university-wide strategic strength in Extreme Events focuses on understanding hazards, the response of infrastructure to hazards and ways to mitigate damage.

The workshop will be held at the Beaver Hollow Conference Center, which is a co-sponsor along with the NSF, UB's Center for Geohazards Studies, MCEER and the UB Extreme Events strategic strength.

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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