Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

The Science of Safety:

Tuba Ozkan-Haller aims to predict and understand coastal hazards

Tuba Ozkan-Haller studies the part of the ocean you can see from the shore — the dirty rim around the bathtub. The place where sediment churns. Currents careen and crash. Rip currents brew and sneaker waves stalk. It's the place where people and processes come together, resulting mostly in sun-soaked respite but sometimes in dangerous accidents.

As a professor at Oregon State University, Ozkan-Haller has a passion for recreational safety. She uses what she calls a "three-legged stool" of computer modeling, field observations and laboratory studies to understand and predict near-shore processes that pose hazards to people. In essence, she hopes to make the ocean's impulsive energy more understandable and less of a threat.

Working in coastal hazards may seem an unlikely career for Ozkan-Haller. Growing up in Turkey, she was terrified of the water, much to the chagrin of her Navy officer father.

"My dad would take us to the pool, and I would just sit on the sidelines," she says. She was scared of propellers, of rapids and of the water's chaotic force. But the more her father described how the ocean worked, the less afraid she became. Prediction became a powerful tool in explaining away threats, hazards and dangers.

Fittingly, Ozkan-Haller went on to earn three degrees in civil engineering, a discipline built on prediction. But unlike many of her peers, who were studying how coastal processes impact man-made systems, she was more interested in the reverse — how might revetments impact the natural system, for example, waves or erosion?

Ozkan-Haller found her place in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State, combining her engineering background with near-shore science.

"You can't take the engineer out of the engineer, which is why a lot of my work is oriented toward prediction," she says. "Understanding doesn't feel like enough. We need to build on that understanding to help predict the capacity. But the reverse is true too. Just predicting something isn't satisfying because you don't know why. And if you don't know why, you don't know how transferable that is, how scalable that is."

Ozkan-Haller has applied the nexus of prediction and understanding to many interesting research problems, including navigation hazards and optimizing placement of wave energy devices. Yet, recreational safety continues to be a major focus of her work.

And for good reason. Rip currents kill more people annually than shark attacks. By some accounts, they are deadlier than hurricanes yet don't often make the 5 o'clock news. These powerful channels of swift water can move up to eight feet per second, faster than an Olympic swimmer. Unsuspecting waders who get caught in a rip current become exhausted trying to swim to shore, putting themselves at risk of drowning.

Sneaker waves can also be dangerous to beach-goers and picnickers. "Unlike rip currents, sneaker waves affect people who did not intend to be in the water. They are dressed in boots and coats, things that weigh them down. These sneaker waves don't necessarily have to be big. Just unexpected," she said.

Reports from beachgoers on when a sneaker wave hit, or accounts from surfers about the location of a rip current can be helpful to scientists. But anecdotal information alone can't predict when these near-shore hazards will occur.

"The problem is that anecdotal reports only capture the conditions of when the event was observed," Ozkan-Haller says. "Perhaps they are happening at other times, too."

To get a clearer picture of near-shore hazards, Ozkan-Haller looks beneath the ocean surface. Underwater topography (called bathymetry) can influence the genesis and location of rip currents and sneaker waves. But seeing beneath the waves isn't an easy task, especially with murky sediment in suspension. The near-shore bathymetry is also fickle and changing. Too few data points, and researchers only have a snapshot rather than the entire movie. Daily on-the-ground surveys seem like a reasonable solution, but the cost makes them unfeasible.

Ozkan-Haller and colleagues have turned to some innovative methods to quantify the bathymetry. These include models to test different scenarios and remote sensing techniques that detect the dynamic underworld of waves. Video, infrared cameras and airplane-mounted radar coupled with powerful computer simulations can capture the near-shore's shifting sands — providing a real-time look at the contours and ever-changing grooves that create hazardous ocean conditions.

With such predictive-power in hand, Ozkan-Haller imagines being able to send daily forecasts to the Coast Guard so they can anticipate deadly currents and waves. She envisions technology that warns the public in near real-time that a beach is unsafe. In much the same way her father explained the ocean's dangers to her as a child, she aims to educate the public about potential risks so that people can understand, appreciate and safely recreate at the coast. "We want to best communicate the information so it resonates with people and changes their behavior," she says. "Otherwise, you're just throwing up information."

Tuba Ozkan-Haller Tuba Ozkan-Haller

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