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Tsunami Preparedness Week: Spotlight on Sea Grant Researcher Dr. Kwok Fai Cheung

Hawaii Sea Grant funded Researcher

Kwok Fai Cheung’s area of expertise is ocean wave modeling, which includes tsunamis. He has given talks at the state legislature and at meetings organized by Navy, Air Force, US Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Education, professional societies, and neighborhood boards about tsunami hazards. Sea Grant funded his research work on tsunami model development. His team worked with UNESCO to distribute the resulting model and provide training workshops to universities and government agencies around the world. They are providing technical support to university users from several states and countries.


It’s Tsunami Awareness Week, how does your research help people prepare for tsunamis?

The capabilities to forecast near-shore tsunami heights and to predetermine potential impacted areas are important for tsunami preparedness. With Sea Grant support, I developed a tsunami forecast methodology and a tsunami inundation model. The former has been incorporated into the real-time forecast system operated by NOAA to predict wave heights around the Pacific during a tsunami event.  I have contracts with Hawaii State Civil Defense and American Samoa Department of Homeland Security to develop tsunami inundation maps. As part of the projects, I assist civil defense personnel from all four Hawaii counties and the Territory of American Samoa to turn my data products into tsunami evacuation maps for emergency management. Our tsunami model NEOWAVE won the Benchmark Challenge organized with support from the National Science Foundation. My team subsequently worked with UNESCO to distribute NEOWAVE and provide training workshops to universities and government agencies around the world. We are working closely with university users from several states and countries.

How did you come to work on tsunami research?

My expertise is ocean wave modeling, which includes wind waves, swells, storm tides, and tsunamis. All of my research work is motivated by needs. Hawaii is subject to tsunamis generated from around the Pacific Rim, and is among all the states, sustained the most severe tsunami damage and the highest casualties. Funding is another factor. I began my tsunami research when funding support became available from Sea Grant and the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program in 1999.

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

We do most of our work in doors. Occasionally, we conduct field surveys of tsunami inundation. Over the years, I have surveyed tsunami impacts in American Samoa, Chile, and Japan.

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

A computer cluster and the tsunami model NEOWAVE, developed with Sea Grant support.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy the process of discovery through research. I also enjoy seeing publication of the findings and their implementation in practical use. The biggest reward is seeing transformation of graduate students into researchers.

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

Communicating the importance of my research is not really a challenge with the general public as everyone recognizes the importance of tsunami research. However, it is sometimes difficult to advance new concepts or ideas with a conservative research community.

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

I wanted to become a civil engineer when I was in grade six and obtained my BS, MS, and PhD degrees in civil engineering. My specialization changed from structural engineering to ocean engineering during graduate school.   

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

Outreach! I spend quite a lot of time working with civil defense personnel on the development and implementation my data products for emergency planning.

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

I read “The Discoverers” by Daniel Boorstein when I was a graduate student. It helped shape the way I think as a researcher.

And how about a personal favorite book?

I am a history buff. My favorite book is “The Nightmare Years: 1930 to 1940” by William Shirer.

Do you have an outside hobby?

Gardening if I have time.

What surprised you most about Sea Grant?

The extent of outreach to the user community. I must say this is more of a strength than a surprise.


Check out the whole Tsunami Preparedness Week Spotlight series:

Spotlight on Pat Corcoran

Spotlight on Jamie Mooney

Spotlight on Dr. Ian Miller


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