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More insights, less cost: 3 ways numerical modeling transforms projects

January 26, 2022

By Aaron Chen

For coastal projects, a numerical model allows cost-efficient design with risk reduction and resilience in mind

The ever-increasing threats of climate change and intensity of severe weather events has made it more important than ever to have a clear view of the risks facing coastal communities. As computing power has advanced and data models improved, so too has the use of advanced numerical modeling. It allows us to generate more accurate, validated insights.

It’s essential to understand the risks and create resiliency plans to protect these coastal areas. We have used physical models for decades, but numerical models are quickly expanding the types of projections that we can create. This leads to three key benefits:

  • Expanded variable simulation
  • Model validation and visualization
  • Cost savings

Westport Grays Harbor, Washington, is one of the key shellfish locations in the United States.

1.  Expanded variable simulation

Managing a complex project often requires an understanding of many factors, such as water level, current, and waves. We also need to know the impact they have in an existing climate condition or in climate-change scenarios that are critical for designs, flood-risk evaluations, or environmental impact assessments.

Those factors are often only available in limited space and time, meaning we can’t measure everything in real-world settings in real-time. Numerical models provide an accurate and efficient way to expand on these factors. As a result, we’re able to easily create simulations that show a wide range of scenarios. This allows us to develop much stronger projections on the impact to cities, coastlines, and bodies of water.

As an example, my team worked with the Grays Harbor Conservation District in Washington to complete coastal model development and mitigation. The project aimed to improve the Gray Harbors and Willapa Bay (Twin Harbors) estuaries ecosystem. It is one of the most essential shellfish locations in the US. As part of that process, our numerical modeling experts worked to understand wind, wave, tide, discharge, and sediment transport prior to selecting the most effective model.

Once we completed our research, we created one model to simulate tide, current, waves, storm surge, and the ensuing sediment transport and morphological changes. That allowed us to understand the impact of sediment changes in the area. In the past, we could not pull together the range of variables assessed in this project in a manner that let us truly understand the right path forward for Twin Harbors. With modern modeling tools and practices, we created a conceptual design that gave us the ability to evaluate and enhance the habitability of the bays, which can be further evaluated with pilot programs. 

A numerical model lets us design coastal projects in the most cost-efficient way with risk reduction and resilience in mind.

2.  Model validation and visualization

Beyond the high-quality data created by numerical modeling, there is still the human element to consider. Teams of engineers must call on their experience to validate the findings and confirm the best path forward.

When our coastal engineering team reviews the outcome of a model, we verify that the findings are consistent and accurate. We compare pattern similarity, evaluate levels of variation, and look for data biases to find any data outliers. Illustrating the information graphically using plots, we can conduct a comparison of the model performance to confirm its accuracy. Once verified, engineers review the models and findings to ensure that they have all the important details and that the future approach is clear.

The advances in numerical modeling visualization allow us to present complex scenarios in snapshots that are clear and easy to digest. We can then use maps, web-based interactive plots, and custom animations to create a roadmap to successful risk mitigation.

3.  Cost savings

Numerical models provide an efficient way to examine various design components or details. It is especially true when you consider the design of a coastal structure, restoration efforts, and future projects. This approach ensures the design performs effectively while reducing construction costs. 

An interactive web-based map to review model results at any time and space within the model time frame and domain.

Compared to traditional physical models, the benefits of numerical models become apparent quickly when we look at all the factors that go in to measuring in the physical world. The physical model is limited by space. In some cases, physical measurements for large scale projects are nearly impossible. It’s also not possible to capture all aspects of the movement based on limited information. If we want to change the test conditions in a physical model, we’d need to create a whole new model. For example, we can’t add a new input to a physical model to demonstrate a changing condition. However, with numerical models, we have nearly unlimited flexibility to adjust conditions. At the touch of a button, we can show changes in tidal conditions and sea levels.

Furthermore, the material and labor costs needed to build physical models and to test scenarios are much higher than using today’s advanced modeling techniques. The insights that these models can provide also help to streamline design and construction. A numerical model lets us design coastal projects in the most cost-efficient way with risk reduction and resilience in mind.

The future of modeling

We are going to see numerical modeling continue to expand.  With the significant advantages that it offers in managing a world of ongoing natural threats and climate change, it’s an exciting time to work in this field. 

  • Aaron Chen

    As a coastal engineering specialist, Aaron focuses on hydrodynamic and morphodynamic modelling, storm surge modelling, shoreline restoration, and coastal resilience.

    Contact Aaron
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