Author Archives: Maggie

How high’s the water, flood model? Five feet high and risin’

Climate change and the resulting effects on communities and their infrastructure are notoriously difficult to model, yet the importance is not difficult to grasp. Infrastructure is designed to last for a certain amount of time, called its design life. The design life of a bridge is about 50 years; a building can be designed for 70 years. For coastal communities that have infrastructure designed to survive severe coastal flooding at the time of construction, what happens if the sea rises during its design life? That severe flooding can become more severe, and the bridge or building might fail.

Most designers and engineers don’t consider the effects of climate change in their designs because they are hard to model and involve much uncertainty.

Kai at Wolf Rock in Oregon.

In comes Kai Parker, a 5th year PhD student in the Coastal Engineering program. Kai is including climate change and a host of other factors into his flood models: Waves, Tides, Storms, Atmospheric Forcing, Streamflow, and many others. He specifically models estuaries (including Coos and Tillamook Bay, Oregon and Grays Harbor, Washington), which extend inland and can have complex geometries. Not only is Kai working to incorporate those natural factors into his flood model, he has also worked with communities to incorporate their response to coastal hazards and the factors that are most important to them into his model.

Modeling climate change requires an immense amount of computing power. Kai uses super computers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to run a flood model and determine the fate of an estuary and its surroundings. But this is for one possible new climate, with one result (this is referred to as a deterministic model). Presenting these results can be misleading, especially if the uncertainty is not properly communicated.

Kai with his hydrodynamic model grid for Coos Bay, Oregon.

In an effort to model more responsibly, Kai has expanded into using what is called a probabilistic flood model, which results in a distribution of probabilities that an event of a certain severity will occur. Instead of just one new climate, Kai would model 10,000 climates and determine which event is most likely to occur. This technique is frequently used by earthquake engineers and often done using Monte Carlo simulations. Unfortunately, flooding models take time and it takes more than supercomputing to make probabilistic flooding a reality.

To increase efficiency, Kai has developed an “emulator”, which uses techniques similar to machine learning to “train” a faster flooding model that can make Monte Carlo simulation a possibility. Kai uses the emulator to solve flood models much like we use our brains to play catch: we are not using equations of physics, factoring in wind speed or the temperature of the air, to calculate where the ball will land. Instead we draw on a bank of experiences to predict where the ball will land, hopefully in our hands.

Kai doing field work at Bodega Bay in California.

Kai grew up in Gerlach, Nevada: Population 206. He moved to San Luis Obispo to study civil engineering at Cal Poly SLO and while studying, he worked as an intern at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab and has been working with the coast ever since. When Kai is not working on his research, he is brewing, climbing rocks, surfing waves, or cooking the meanest soup you’ve ever tasted. Next year, he will move to Chile with a Fulbright grant to apply his emulator techniques to a new hazard: tsunamis.

To hear more about Kai’s research, be sure to tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM this Sunday May, 27 at 7 pm, stream the live interview at, or find it in podcast form next week on Apple Podcasts.

This includes you!

A graph illustrating why it is important to incorporate inclusive considerations early in the design process where they will do the most good. If it is kept for a later stage as it generally has been, the products will end up more expensive and less effectively inclusive.

Jessica Armstrong is a PhD candidate in her last year in the Design Core of the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering working to give product designers more information about customer needs so that they can create a more inclusive product design. Generally, products are conceived out of a need, and their design is based on the eventual user(s). The term inclusive design, similar to universal design, aims to design products for people with a varying range of abilities from the start. Making it possible to incorporate inclusive considerations early in the design process, when they will most benefit the design, and at the lowest cost, is a major part of the work. Jessica’s research goal is to build a framework that designers can follow to allow them to easily design as inclusive products as possible.

A picture of Jessica in the motion restriction suit.

To do this, Jessica, advised by Dr. Rob Stone, uses a motion restriction suit (tested during her M.S. degree at OSU) to test users’ experiences using kitchen gadgets. The suit restricts motion of the upper body by stiffening movements of the fingers, wrists, elbows, abdomen, and shoulder. They are investigating what they have termed “surrogate experiences”, or allowing a research subject (surrogate) to simulate the actual target users and their needs. Jessica is able to record a user’s experience with the kitchen gadget and identify any difficulties in products user interactions, the products actions and design, and the suit’s restriction.




Jessica Armstrong, at her first Design Engineering Technical Conference.

Jessica grew up in Boise, Idaho wanting to become an astronaut. Very much interested in physics and engineering, she moved to Corvallis for her Bachelor’s degree in Engineering Physics. She took a break from studying while her husband worked on his Entomology MS degree at Washington State University. During that time, she worked as a telephone interviewer for WSU’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center where she interviewed people over the phone for the various studies they were conducting. She then moved back to OSU to pursue her MS and then PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and specifically focusing on design. She acquired a minor in IE Human Systems Engineering, as she finds the human aspect of engineering fascinating. While not working on research, Jessica sings alto and tenor in OSU’s University Choral and is the Treasurer for the OSU Physicists for Inclusion in Science group.

Her interest in space has not dissipated and she aims to work for a private space company after completing her degree. She hopes her doctoral research will eventually be used to encourage inclusivity in space travel and everyday life.

Tune in at 7 pm this Sunday March, 11 to hear more about Jessica’s research and journey to graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live online!