Time and tide

Wave lab.

Photos by Johanna Carson, Courtesy of O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab and Oregon State University

In 1971, Howard Hinsdale asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate his technique for building jetties and breakwaters. They wouldn’t do it, so he built a place that would.

Researchers faithfully recreated SEaside, Oregon, circa 2008 for a test of the
town's tsunami resilience.

“Howard said, ‘I don’t need them, I’ll do it myself,’ and that’s how the wave lab started at Oregon State,” said Terry Dibble, an electrical engineer who joined the lab in its earliest days.

Hinsdale, then president of Umpqua River Navigation in Reedsport, had his eye on plans to build and deploy a string of floating nuclear power plants along the East Coast. Westinghouse and other corporate giants had already poured millions into the audacious project. What really grabbed his attention were the immense protective breakwaters that would surround every four- acre power station, and nobody knew more about how to build them than Hinsdale.

For years, Umpqua had built or repaired jetties and breakwaters up and down the Oregon Coast. Instead of just piling big rocks into the sea, the company’s crane operators positioned specially quarried, 25-ton rectangular basalt blocks so they would lock in place to form a smooth, densely packed outer layer. The structures withstood the fury of the North Pacific far better than traditional rubble-mound construction, but Hinsdale still needed an independent assessment to gain a competitive edge. Only the Corps of Engineers had a facility big enough for the task, but they had declined. Oregon State, with the only ocean engineering program in the area, seemed like an ideal alternative.

With a $150,000 donation from Hinsdale (equivalent to about $1 million today) and a $75,000 loan from the OSU Foundation, Oregon State built the large wave flume, which opened in 1973. Even before it was finished, research projects were lined up for a year. Jack Nath, a civil engineering professor who became the wave lab’s founding director, developed the design specifications for the 342-foot-long concrete channel capable of producing 5-foot waves.

“That tank is still perfect,” Dibble said.

wave lab.
High seas batter a scale model of an ocean-going container barge in 2009.

While visions of floating nuclear plants sank into obscurity, Hinsdale was vindicated when tests in the new flume proved unequivocally that his breakwaters were as robust as he’d claimed.

The flume was constructed on the western fringe of campus, entirely in the open. Experiments went on no matter how cruddy or cold the weather, but the three-person staff still needed an office. Dibble picked up a used mobile home in Salem for $4,000 and parked it next to the flume. He turned one bedroom into an electronics shop and set up the $9,000 PDP 11 computer, with its whopping 4 kilobytes of RAM, in a pullout room. “That was it. That was the wave lab for a long time,” he said.

Over 26 years, Dibble played a key role at the lab. He designed instruments and helped researchers run tests, among other things. Yet for all his many contributions, he’s still probably best known as the guy who surfed the flume. “I wish I’d gotten the copyright for that photo; it showed up all over the place,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hinsdale demurred whenever the university suggested naming the facility in his honor. The lab’s low-key benefactor relented in 1986, just a few years before he died.

In 1989, the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory added the directional wave basin, and the entire facility was enclosed in a 1.5-acre corrugated steel building that includes 5,000 square feet of office space for staff, graduate students, and visiting researchers. (A circular wave basin was also built, but it was removed in 2001.) In 2000, the wave basin was expanded to its current size of nearly 14,000 square feet — larger than an Olympic-size pool — to make way for tsunami research as part of a national network of facilities funded by the National Science Foundation.

Today, the wave lab, run by the College of Engineering, is one the largest and most technologically advanced coastal engineering research facilities in the world. Scientists and engineers from around the globe come here to study the impact of tsunamis and wind-driven waves on the built and natural environments and related processes. Marine renewable energy testing has also become a common sight.

wave lab.
Meagan Wengrove (leaning over the tank), assistant professor of coastal and ocean engineering, takes readings during
her 2019 investigation of the physics of dune erosion.

The large wave flume represents a two-dimensional “slice” of the coast that can accommodate large-scale models and full-size structural elements. The directional wave basin operates at a somewhat smaller scale, but it adds a third, lateral dimension that allows researchers to send multidirectional waves toward mockups of coastal structures and systems, and even scale models of entire communities.

“Whether you’re looking at artificial islands for building oil drilling rigs, breakwaters, pipelines, coastal erosion, or houses, it’s difficult to analyze those interactions if all you have to work with are basic physics, math, and numerical modeling,” said Charles Sollitt, emeritus professor of civil and construction engineering, who succeeded Nath as lab director in 1980. “You need to validate those models with credible physical experiments, and the experiments done here offer that credibility for a very wide range of conditions.”

Natural hazards research represents, by far, the most common area of inquiry, and most of it continues to be funded by the NSF. In fact, NSF grants cover about half of the lab’s operational costs, but they have to be renewed periodically, according to Pedro Lomónaco, the lab’s current director. The remainder comes from other government agencies and project fees.

“We don’t have long-term assurance of income, and we don’t have a way to invest big money on improvements,” Lomónaco said. “Fortunately, because of our hard work and the high quality of what we do, we’ve been busy enough in recent years to stay in the black.”

All NSF-funded researchers are obligated to make their findings public, so important discoveries aren’t bottled away.

“Sometimes, those outcomes are incorporated into building codes that result in improved performance and increased safety,” said Dan Cox, CH2M Hill Professor in Civil Engineering and wave lab director from 2002 to 2010. “So, the work done here has certainly protected lives and property.”

Last fall, Lomónaco traveled to Tokyo on behalf of the wave lab to accept the Hamaguchi Award from Japan’s Port and Airport Research Institute. The award recognizes the lab’s contributions to the understanding of tsunamis and other coastal hazards and for its disaster-prevention work.

Researchers stepping into the cavernous lab for the first time are often awestruck by its immensity. “They walk in and say, ‘Oh, now I understand why you keep telling us it will take several weeks just to set up our experiment.’ They’ve been thinking in terms of days while we’ve been advising them to think in terms of weeks and months,” Lomónaco said. “It’s easy to underestimate the timescale for preparing, running, and taking down a project that, for example, involves installing and cleaning up 1,000 tons of sand delivered by more than 70 dump truck loads, as was the case for a 2019 test to study the physics of dune erosion.”

Preparation for that experiment also required growing a crop of dune vegetation for five months atop a huge sand dune in a specially constructed greenhouse at one end of the flume. “There’s been an interesting shift towards nature-based solutions to protect the coast,” Lomónaco said.

Its size, of course, is a major reason why the lab is booked out for more than a year in advance. “Bigger is better,” Lomónaco said. “The closer the simulation gets to actual size, the more reliable the results.” Another draw is half a century of accumulated knowledge. “Researchers may know exactly what structure they want to test, but they may not know a lot about what forces to apply or how to conduct the experiment. We help them with everything so that they leave with the data they need.”

Given the variety of experiments and other activities at the lab, it’s a challenge to pick out the most memorable. Researchers have investigated space capsule drift after splashdown; automated wave-powered docking stations to recharge autonomous underwater vehicles; and an underwater loading vehicle to assist with the reconstruction of the water intake system for Detroit, Michigan. The lab was also one of several sites where competitors tested their ideas for the 2016 Department of Energy Wave Energy Prize for the best wave energy converter design. (The winning company, Aquaharmonics, was founded by College of Engineering graduates and was awarded $1.5 million.) Another time, 10- to 15-year-old surfers checked out the waves in the basin.

Some tests had hidden undercurrents. In the early 1970s, a big mining company learned about Howard Hughes’ expedition to pluck manganese nodules from the ocean floor. (He’d even built the Glomar Explorer, a 600-foot deep-sea drilling ship just for the venture.) The mining company wanted in on the action, and they used the flume to test deep-sea dredging techniques.

“We filled the flume with two feet of the finest, most disgusting mud. I’ll bet there’s still particles in the tank’s crevices,” Dibble said. “Then we made fake manganese nodules and put them on the mud.”

The tests didn’t lead anywhere, but a few years later, the world found out the real story. Hughes had collaborated with the CIA, acting as a front for a top-secret operation, Project Azorian, to raise a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine that had sunk, 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii, in 16,500 feet of water.

“They did such a good cover story that when I was a graduate student at Oregon State, I even attended seminars about deep-sea manganese mining given by guys from the Glomar Explorer before they went on their mission,” Dibble said.

A pair of projects had big impacts on Cox. The first was in 1991 when he was a University of Delaware graduate student visiting the lab for the first time. The experiment involved sediment transport, but what left its mark was a level of collaboration that he’d never expected among a group of more than 20 scientists from multiple institutions. “Everyone worked together and shared ideas, resources, and data,” Cox said. “I wasn’t used to that, and it really impressed me. It transformed my way of thinking about how research could be done as a team instead of solo, where you hold onto your data and you’re careful who you share it with.”

The second one was in 2008 during his tenure as lab director. Cox and a research team were planning to use the basin to simulate a tsunami strike. “It was going to be an idealized, anonymous town, but I was encouraged to talk to community leaders in Seaside, Oregon, and suggest that we make the model based on the real thing,” he said. “I was somewhat skeptical, but the town completely supported the idea. What we set up looked unmistakably like part of the real Seaside. You could identify individual buildings and streets. From that point on, I actively started engaging with communities to make our research more accessible to the public. The experience made it very clear what a valuable asset the wave lab is for so many people.”

March 28, 2023