Archive for April, 2013

Arctic Field Training in Svalbard (Spitsbergen)

By Stanislav Pavlov, on 29 April 2013

Arctic sea ice cover has had a high profile in the media over the last few years. There has been a growing interest in the region from across the scientific community, such as oceanographers and marine engineers in particular. The Arctic ice cover has reduced, allowing increasing access to the natural resource base in the arctic and has the potential to open new shipping routes.

As part of my PhD project researching the risks of Arctic offshore operations we were invited to participate in a field training course organized by the University Centre of Svalbard (UNIS) in Svalbard – far in the Arctic north. Together with Prof. Peter Sammonds we left the relative luminosity and warmth of London to arrive in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town at 78°North, during the peak of the polar night season.

Field training in the afternoon with Longyearbyen town in the background

Field training in the afternoon with Longyearbyen town in the background

Over the course of one week we practiced skills, both indoors and in the field, essential for work in the Arctic region. These included first aid, sea and emergency rescue, rifle training, crevasse and avalanche rescue etc.  Activities that would otherwise seem relatively mundane were much more difficult to accomplish in the freezing cold. Tasks such as setting up camp or equipment, were made much more difficult by several layers of clothing and necessitated efficient team effort. The wind and visibility were key unpredictable variables that would change the conditions in a very short space of time.

It was refreshing to see many participants in the safety course, highlighting the number of scientists who are working on understanding the arctic environment. The equipment given to participants in field experiments was excellent and the rescue service in Svalbard was second to none.

During our stay we understood the importance of the skills needed to operate in this fragile and ever changing environment. In addition we were in an excellent position to observe and absorb the unusual Arctic environment. In particular we were surprised to find that the ice cover did not extend to the main part of the island, and was only partially covering the northeasterly corner of the island. This was not surprising as the ice cover has been at its lowest levels in past few years.

It was easy to see that with the lower levels of ice cover, an increasing exploration of these areas will be very likely in the near future. As with any oil exploration there are many risks involved in the operations. The key for our research at IRDR is to research the associated risks involved in such activities. So far there have not been any major incidents in the Artic seas, but with ever increasing activity in the region the understanding of the risks is vital in preventing and dealing with any possible future disasters.

Svalbard Rescue Services demonstrating a rescue operation with a Super Puma helicopter

Svalbard Rescue Services demonstrating a rescue operation with a Super Puma helicopter

Our visit to the Arctic was an amazing experience and the completion of the safety course will allow us to participate in future fieldwork projects within Svalbard and obtain valuable field data to further our understanding of the Arctic sea ice.

Tohoku University Research Visit and Japan Field Mission: March 2013

By Amy L Chadderton, on 26 April 2013

In March 2011, a Mw 9.0 earthquake occurred off the coast of Tohoku in northeast Japan. This earthquake triggered one of the largest tsunamis Japan has ever seen and devastated much of the coast. Three months after this historic event, EEFIT (the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team) began their Tohoku field mission. On the anniversary of this disastrous event, exactly 2 years after the fateful earthquake, BIS (UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills) funded myself and fellow PhD student Melodie Vanderpuye to undertake a brief follow-up mission to preliminarily scope the progress that has been made in rebuilding devastated areas. The week-long mission to Japan involved strengthening UK-Japan links via participation in the 10th International Workshop on Water Dynamics and ICDP Japan Beyond Brittle Project, and the undertaking of a 2-day field mission to tsunami-impacted areas.

Our week in Japan began with a fascinating 3 days at the 10th International Workshop on Water Dynamics and the ICDP Japan Beyond Brittle Project at Tohoku University, Sendai. The conference brought together a wide range of expertise from both the scientific and engineering communities and provided an interdisciplinary forum for the sharing and discussing of ideas.

Figure 1

The conference was not only informative, providing a brilliant insight into the issues I will be encountering during my PhD, but allowed relationships to be forged between industry representatives and the academic world.  During our time at the conference meetings were also held with the IRIDeS (International Research Institute of Disaster Science) representative Prof Fumihiko Imamura to discuss the agenda for the upcoming conference at UCL in November 2013, which marks the anniversary of the 150 year relationship between UCL and Japan.

Attending the conference we saw first-hand Japan’s praiseworthy desire to nurture international relationships between industry and academia. The hospitality at Tohoku University was second to non and we were looked after extremely well. The conference banquet at the end of the first day was a particular highlight, even if we were swaying slightly with exhaustion from our 12 hour flight and full conference day without any sleep!

After an enlightening 3 days at the conference it was Melodie and I’s turn to go it alone and explore Japan for ourselves in order to follow up on the EEFIT report compiled 2 years earlier. We also wanted to experience first-hand the impact of such a large magnitude, both in power and impact, event. We hired a car to give us the freedom we needed to explore the planned sites. The field mission began in Sendai and took a coastal route where possible, as certain roads still have not been rebuilt after the tsunami, as far north as Ofunato. With a slight nervous excitement regarding what we were going to find, we set off on Friday 15th March heading north towards the Miyagi Prefecture coastline, one of the worst hit sections of coast in Japan.

Heavily damaged railway station at Nobiru.

Railway station at Nobiru.

We were immediately struck by the impact of the tsunami at one of our first stops, Nobiru, a small town east of Matsushima. Nobiru showed no signs of redevelopment apart from a few individual residential homes. The tsunami destroyed the town’s railway station, twisting the tracks and overhead power lines and heavily damaging the station building and surrounding shops. The coastal road is still diverted due to unrepaired damage. It appears that due to the town’s lack of industrial prowess and significant strategic importance, redevelopment has not been a priority and the whole area is mostly abandoned. A similar situation was also observed at Wakabayashi on the coast of Sendai. This is an area of near-total devastation. The only new building within this entire area was a temporary structure housing a 7 Eleven convenience store. Wakabayashi was our final site on the last day of our field mission but despite the evidence of destruction we had observed over the previous 2 days, this final site really made the impact of the tsunami hit home. The utter hopelessness and vulnerability of Wakabayashi’s position coupled with the footprints of homes

Memorial at Wakabayashi, Sendai.

Memorial at Wakabayashi, Sendai.

where living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms were still visible really made us think about the impact of this event on individual families. It is very easy to quote statistics on damage to concrete and steel, and even death toll statistics can become quite meaningless and devoid of emotion when repeated so frequently, but on the ground, stood at the front door of what was once a happy family home, now a mere footprint on the earth, really compounded our belief that something needs to be done to prevent this devastation from occurring to future generations. A memorial stands on the shoreline at Wakabayashi, dedicated to all of the victims of the tsunami.

Rebuild Shop at Onagawa

Rebuild Shop at Onagawa

Sites where the outlook was more positive were Onagawa and Shizugawa Bay, which in contrast to Nobiru and Wakabayashi, showed clear signs of progress but had not quite reached the rebuilding stage of recovery. In Onagawa one indicator of the destruction the 16 metre inundation wave wrought on the bay has turned into an unlikely tourist attraction. A 3-storey steel framed, reinforced concrete building was overturned by the force of the water during the tsunami but remained intact. As images of the building have circled the globe and visitors to the area go out of their way to visit the site, the ruin is now being deliberately preserved as a monument and reminder of the power nature can wield. A car park has been cordoned off and a temporary ‘Rebuild Shop’ has sprung up to help raise funds for the redevelopment of the area.

Left: 2011 EEFIT report image of Building D; Right: Recent mission image of Building D

Left: 2011 EEFIT image of Building D; Right: 2013 image.

After a refreshing night in a Japanese style hotel room, complete with slippers, Tatami Mats and a wonderful bento meal, we set out for Ofunato. On entering the town from the south, the redevelopment and rebuilding efforts of the town became apparent. The road (Route 45) appeared newly laid and lining it were newly constructed buildings housing a range of businesses from small enterprises to larger chain stores. The overall impression of Ofunato was one of progress.

Preserved tree at Takata-Matsubara

Takata-Matsubara

Despite the speedy recovery of certain areas devastated by the 2011 tsunami, there is still a long way to go before the Tohoku coastline of Japan can be classified as recovered from this momentous event. Some may argue that it never can fully recover from such an earth-shattering occurrence. Hope, however, can be seen in the miraculous survival of a singular tree on the shoreline of Takata-Matsubara. Where once 70,000 pine trees stood along a 2 km stretch of beach, one tree was left standing after the 2011 tsunami. This ‘miracle pine’ has captured the hearts of the Japanese people and it is now being preserved as an enduring symbol that hope is not lost and life can be protected.

Throughout our enlightening week in Japan, lots of things were learnt, many sights were seen and much rice was eaten. We all came away with a far greater appreciation of what challenges Japan, and indeed the world, are facing relating to our vulnerability to natural disasters. In addition to this deeper understanding however, Melodie and I also learnt that our transferable skills extend to the operation of an entirely Japanese Sat Nav; the personal achievement of our successful navigation around the coast and arrival back at the car hire shop a mere 10 minutes before the drop off time was, we felt, quite a triumph!

We would like to thank, once again, the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for funding the expedition; their support is gratefully acknowledged.

Fieldwork in Abruzzo: Four years on from L’Aquila

By Luke Wedmore, on 19 April 2013

With the 4-year anniversary of the devastating L’Aquila earthquake occurring in the middle of my first PhD fieldtrip to Italy, the importance of studying active faults in the Abruzzo region remained at the front of my thoughts throughout my trip. The aim of the trip was to use Laser scanning (LiDAR) and ground penetrating radar (GPR) to increase our understanding of the active earthquake faults in the area. The group comprised Dr. Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR), Dr. Ken McCaffrey (Durham University) and Dr. Laura Gregory (University of Leeds).

Dr. Ken McCaffrey (Durham University) using LiDAR to scan active normal faults in Abruzzo

Dr. Ken McCaffrey (Durham University) using LiDAR to scan active normal faults in Abruzzo

The first week was spent collecting GPR and LiDAR data along active faults, while the second week was spent hunting for potential future data collection sites. The active normal faults in this area can be seen in the landscape due to the existence of prominent limestone bedrock fault scarps on the side of steep mountains. However, such fault scarps are not present everywhere; for example, part of the fault responsible for the 1915 Avezzano earthquake that killed over 30,000 people crosses the Fucino plain. The Fucino basin is a former lake bed that was drained in the 1800’s. Consequently, the fault scarp has been obscured by erosion from the lake and more recently by intensive farming. LiDAR scans of sites along the fault trace within the plain ensure that we have a 3D digital image of the current state of the fault.

LiDAR scanning on the Fucino Plain

During the course of the two-week trip I visited 10 active faults across the region of Abruzzo and collected large quantities of data to process over the coming months. Visiting the faults for the first time was invaluable to my understanding of the earthquake hazard and overall seismic risk that people in the area are subject to.  Observing spectacular villages that cling to the sides of mountains located in the hanging walls of active faults and larger towns in the basins below highlighted the potentially devastating impact earthquakes in the area could have.  The results of my work will feed into a larger NERC funded study which aims to determine the time since each active fault last produced an earthquake; being a first year PhD student, this is a fantastic opportunity for me and I am looking forward to contributing to such an innovative and exciting project.