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Hurricane Preparedness Week: Spotlight on MIT Sea Grant funded Researchers Robert Beardsley and Changsheng Chen

Robert Beardsley is a scientist emeritus of physical oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Changsheng Chen leads the Marine Ecosystem Dynamics Modeling Research Laboratory at UMASS Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology

Robert Beardsley is a scientist emeritus of physical oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and Changsheng Chen leads the Marine Ecosystem Dynamics Modeling Research Laboratory at UMASS Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology. Through a close and long-term partnership, they have worked together on several projects, including the development of FVCOM, which has received MIT Sea Grant sponsorship since 2006. They will present their work at MIT Sea Grant’s upcoming Climate Change Symposium on Sustaining Coastal Cities in June 2014 as part of a discussion on predictions, scenarios, and downscaling global models for local communities.

It’s Hurricane Preparedness Week, how does your research help people prepare for hurricanes?

We first developed an unstructured-grid, finite-volume community ocean model (FVCOM). We then used a regional-scale community mesoscale meteorological model (WRF) driven by NCEP to construct the surface forcing fields needed to drive FVCOM and an unstructured-grid surface wave model SWAVE.  This coupled system forms the core of the Northeast Coastal Ocean Forecast System (NECOFS), which we put into 24/7 experimental operation in late 2007. Each day NECOFS produces a 3-day forecast of the surface weather, forcing fields, surface waves, water elevation, and 3D ocean currents, temperature and salinity for the northeast region (spanning the New England Shelf, Georges Bank, Gulf of Maine and the Nova Scotian shelf), with the results being disseminated using internet.    

One objective of NECOFS is to develop “end-to-end” local coastal inundation models for Scituate and Boston (MA) and Hampton (NH).  The Scituate nested wave-current coupled inundation model has been validated for selected extratropical storms (Nor-easters) of 2005, 2007 and 2010, while the regional-scale storm surge generated by the 1991 Hurricane Bob was well-captured by NECOFS. The NWS northeast Weather Forecast Offices now use the NECOFS regional and Scituate and Hampton inundation forecasts to help formulate the WFO coastal hazard warnings.

How did you come to work on coastal hazards research?

FVCOM and NECOFS provide a dynamically-based model tool for storm-induced coastal inundation. Taking advantage of its grid flexibility in irregular geometric fitting, this model system is capable of resolving in detail the geometry of the coastal-estuarine and wetland complex, which is critical for accurate prediction of coastal inundation.  FVCOM is a fully current-wave coupled model, which can be used to predict storm surge elevation, surface wave height, and wave runup processes. Understanding and predicting these processes are the key issues in coastal hazard research.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In the field?

FVCOM and NECOFS are computational numerical models, which are run on a super-performance Linux Cluster at the School of Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. The data used to validate NECOFS include weather and surface wave data collected on NOAA NDBC environmental buoys, total water level data measured at coastal NOAA tide stations, and weather and 3-D ocean currents and water properties collected by the IOOS-funded Northeast Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS).  NECOFS also uses satellite-derived SST and SSH, surface wind stress and heat flux using winds and heat flux measurement data on NOAA buoys, tidal gauges along the coast and current measurements recorded on NERACOOS buoys.

What is the piece of technology or equipment you could not do without?

To resolve the spatial structure of the coastal inundation, the model usually requires a high-resolution mesh (up to a few meters) along the coast and on land.  This requires a high-performance computer to run the model.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

FVCOM was developed to meet the technical need for simulating and predicting realistic ocean and estuarine environments and their changes. This provides a technically sound tool for the study and prediction of hurricane and extratropical storm-induced surge and coastal inundation.  This model system is now being widely used by scientists, engineers, and graduate students in over 38 countries in a wide variety of scientific and applied projects, which helps demonstrate the value of our contributions to advance ocean modeling.  The most enjoyable work for us is to see what we are doing could help the community in storm surge prediction and coastal hazard assessment.  

What is the biggest challenge you face in communicating the importance of your research?

Much of our time has been spent in model development efforts, which has limited our activity in communicating with end users. 

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

Chen: I originally came from China and started to pursue my career in science when I was at College. That was done passively since I had no an option to choose my major when I was at College in China.  I started really thinking of pursuing my career in ocean science when I studied in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program for my Ph.D. research in 1986.  Dr. Robert C Beardsley was my Ph.D. advisor who brought me into a real ocean research career.

Bob: I knew by high school that I wanted to be a scientist or engineer.  Following my older sister and brother, I took physics as my college major, and then switched to physical oceanography at MIT for my Ph.D. 

What part of your job did you least expect to be doing?

Chen: I would not have expected becoming involved in the administration work that is often required as a tenured faculty at an academic university.

Bob: I thought being a scientist required very little writing.  Writing was very difficult for me in high school and college, so I have worked hard to improve my writing and communication skills.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

Chen: Nothing special.

Bob: Use the internet to learn about the different sciences and begin to see which ones are more interesting to you.

And how about a personal favorite book?

Chen: Geophysical Fluid Dynamics written by Joe Pedlosky.

Bob: I love to analyze field data. Two tools that have made it much more efficient and enjoyable are 1) fast PCs (especially laptops) and 2) the software package MATLAB. 

Do you have an outside hobby?

Chen: Work in my vegetable garden during spring and summer.

Bob: Woodworking

What surprised you most about Sea Grant?

The freedom to propose and create exciting new knowledge and advanced modeling tools for societally important problems even with limited funding. 


Meet other people in the Sea Grant Network that help communities prepare for severe coastal storms like hurricanes:

Hawaii Sea Grant Extension Agent Dennis Hwang
National Severe Storm Laboratory Sea Grant Extension Agent: Kodi Monroe
New York Sea Grant Communication Specialist: Paul Focazio
Maine Sea Grant Extension Agent: Kristen Grant
South Carolina Sea Grant funded Researcher: Scott Schiff
Texas Sea Grant Extension Agent: Heather Wade

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