Research highlights: A new era in disaster research

By October 13, 2016Uncategorized

By Bob Brustman, U-M Civil and Environmental Engineering Department

University of Michigan researchers have received a $2.5 million NSF grant to develop a computational model that is hoped to significantly advance natural hazards engineering and disaster science.

Natural hazards engineers study earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, landslides, and other disasters. They work to better understand the causes and effects of these phenomena on cities, homes, and infrastructure and develop strategies to save lives and mitigate damage.

Sherif El-Tawil

Sherif El-Tawil

Sherif El-Tawil, the lead PI for the project, is a structural engineer interested in how buildings behave, particularly in natural or man-made disasters. He’s developed 3D models and simulators that show precisely what happens in a building if a particular column or wall is destroyed during an extreme event.

On the project team are Jason McCormick, an earthquake engineering expert, Seymour Spence, who has expertise in wind engineering, and Benigno Aguirre, who is a social scientist interested in how people behave during catastrophes. The rest of the team includes. Vineet Kamat, Carol Menassa, and Atul Prakash, who will develop the simulation techniques used in the project.

The researchers of this newly funded project are creating a computational framework, using the Flux high performance computing cluster, that will define a set of standards for disaster researchers to use when constructing their models, enabling simulation models to work together.

El-Tawil explains: “Disaster research is a thriving area because disasters affect so many people worldwide and there is a lot we can do to reduce loss of life and damage to our civil infrastructure.”

“Lots of researchers study disasters, including engineers like me, but also social scientists, economists, doctors, and others. But all of the studies are essentially niche studies, belonging in the field of the researchers. Our objective is to develop computational standards so that social scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, first responders, and everyone else can produce simulators that interact together in a large, all-encompassing simulation of a disaster scenario. Think of it as the civilian equivalent of a war games simulator.”

el-tawil-nsf“Developing this common computational language will allow completely new studies to occur. Someone might look at the effects of an earthquake on a particular town and its citizens and then the subsequent effects of infectious diseases. With a common language, we can really examine the cascading and potentially out-of-control effects that occur during catastrophic events.”

Beyond developing the computational standards, they hope to create something like an app store through which researchers can share their simulation models and foster new collaborations and new areas of research. 

The grant also includes funding for a programmer housed at Advanced Research Computing (ARC) that will become a shared resource for the rest of campus. The Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering (MICDE) provided support for the grant submission, and will continue to do so post-award.

The project brings together an experienced team with expertise in engineering, social science, and computer science. Six of the seven core members are from the University of Michigan and the seventh is from the University of Delaware.

Team members:

  • Benigno Aguirre, professor, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware
  • Sherif El-Tawil, professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan
  • Vineet Kamat, professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan
  • Jason McCormick, associate professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan
  • Carol Menassa, associate professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan
  • Atul Prakash, professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan
  • Seymour Spence, assistant professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Michigan