Texas Tech University

Avoiding Disasters Through Engineering

Allen Ramsey

March 23, 2023

Ting Lin

Ting Lin’s new build for creating sea-level rise models could alter the course of our future.

Every year, March is observed as Women's History Month. This year, we're telling the stories of extraordinary women at Texas Tech. They are making history through their research, discoveries, tenacity and scholarship. These Red Raiders not only help us commemorate the past, but they're blazing a trail toward the future.

Ting Lin's office has a very light feel to it. 

She is cheerful, sun pouring in the windows. Books and small trinkets decorate the shelves that surround her desk, and the smile on her face is welcoming. 

She is clearly excited to talk about her work – not just because it's her work, but because she loves the subject matter. 

With the positive vibes Lin exudes, it's hard to fathom that she spends most of her time researching disasters. 

It begged the question of how she got into her line of study, and just minutes into the conversation she pulled a book off the shelves. It was a copy of the “Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America” from the 1960s. For Lin, this is where it all began. 

“That has a paper in it from my academic grandfather, Professor Allin Cornell, and it's really a seminal work,” Lin explained. 

Cornell's paper, entitled “Engineering Seismic Risk Analysis,” presents an idea about how to build a better world, one more capable of standing up to the risks of earthquakes. 

It provides both a foundation and an inspiration for people like Lin. 

Her work encompasses an interesting cross-section of natural disasters. Like Cornell, Lin studies the damaging factors of earthquakes – the quick, hard-hitting ground motion, over in short order but often with devastating effects – one of the fastest and most unpredictable of natural disasters. 

She also has taken the same concepts to the study of sea-level rise – the slow, ever-increasing danger of ice melt putting much of the world's population in danger through rising ocean levels – among the slowest building and most predictable natural disasters earth has to offer. 

“Cornell, and his way of looking at this, is interfacing earthquake science engineering and how we use the hazard information to inform engineering building code,” she explains. “My goal here is doing the same for sea-level rise.”

A New Framework

Lin is an assistant professor in Texas Tech University's Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering and published game-changing papers of her own in 2022, alongside her multi-hazard sustainability (HazSus) research group.

An engineer by training, with a bachelor's degree earned with honors in civil engineering from Cornell University, which included a concentration in architecture, and both a master's and doctorate in structural engineering from Stanford, Lin found a way to help other researchers and engineers. 

In “A Semi-Empirical Framework for Ice Sheet Response Analysis under Oceanic Forcing in Antarctica and Greenland” Lin and HazSus doctoral candidate Xiao Luo presented a way to make modeling sea-level rise less expensive and more accessible.

Luo is a graduate student studying under Lin. She helped guide him into this line of research, but he's taken to it. When he finishes his academic career, he hopes to work in community resilience, using the skills he's learning under Lin to help communities better prepare for the future. 

“I think climate change is really a very big issue,” Luo explained. “It has a lot of inducing hazards, such as sea-level rise, which are very realistic threats, especially to coastal regions. Those hazards are going be even more realistic in a few decades. And that's why I'm doing what I'm doing.”

From an engineering perspective, combatting the impacts of sea-level rise and other potential hazards requires accurate models to show potential future conditions. But building models is challenging. Historically, sea-level models are computationally costly and time-consuming to run. Because of this, they struggle to keep pace with current data. 

So, when an event – a global pandemic for instance – shifts the amount of emissions worldwide or drastically changes the data set, producing an accurate new model becomes a complicated expenditure of time and resources.  

“The challenge is that every time you have a different emission scenario, you need to run the whole model,” Lin explained. “And it takes a lot of time. 

“Essentially, our idea for a hybrid or semi-empirical approach, is if we could just come up with a systematic way of emulating what the long process-based simulations will produce, then that means in the future, if the inputs change, the scenarios change. Then we don't have to re-run the whole model, we can just produce the results.”

Lin and Luo's approach will help speed up the creation of new models in line with the latest data being collected around the world, giving researchers and community leaders better information to work with. 

“It allows us to show the probability of exceeding a certain sea-level rise,” Luo said. “For example, we could model what that probability was for 2100, but now we can do that for pretty much any time. 

It gives us a general idea of a global probability map. For instance, what will it look like in Houston or on the Gulf Coast in 2050, or 2060? I think this is very important work.”

Finding Answers

Discussions about climate change and potential future disasters are often contentious and controversial, but Lin's work shouldn't be. While she creates models that lay out probabilities for future disasters, it's done with a view toward finding solutions. 

“We want to reduce our future risk,” Lin explained. “That's the whole idea.”

Her belief is advances in engineering and technology can help solve many of the problems that will arise. To better explain the long-term ramifications, Lin used 2022 earthquakes in West Texas as an example. 

“Because people in this region are not prepared for earthquakes, even small ones are cause for concern,” she said. “But there are these well-established practices already in place like in California, where earthquakes happen frequently, that could be put in place here.”

Lin explains that looking at what caused collapses of buildings during earthquakes is fundamental in determining what can be done to protect people from a civil engineering perspective. The lessons learned from the past make it possible for cities like San Francisco to use innovative technology to mitigate the impacts. 

“When I was a graduate student, we called it “3D”: dollars – the economic losses from a disaster; death – which is death and injury to people; and downtime – which would be even when you don't have the first two, but maybe you have a bridge closure that causes a major disturbance.”

The information gained by studying disasters helps city planners and other community leaders better understand the codes and regulations needed to keep the population safe. It also can help justify a more expensive option if it leads to avoiding massive economic losses in the future.

Engineering for sea-level rise is more complicated, primarily because predicting future outcomes is exponentially more difficult than quantifying and reacting to what has happened in past disasters. 

So, the focus for Lin is creating accurate models and predicting hazard areas. 

“For the sea-level rise piece, I focus more on the initial hazard part,” Lin explained. “Because, if you think about it, the subsequent decisions are the risks dependent on the hazards.”

The hope, of course, is that creating these models will inform future decisions when it comes to sea-level rise and the issues it can create. 

And there are some case studies to look at, including one close to home.

“One of my students – Keith T. Opalski, a master's alumnus – was looking at the Houston area and more broadly the Gulf of Mexico,” Lin explained. “Basically, the conclusion of that was areas that were not really flood zones before will become inundated with all the compounding effects of sea-level rise. 

“And the hazard curve – which describes how likely hazards are to occur – is different before and after Hurricane Harvey. We wanted to look at all of it, including the climate change piece, and now we have three hazard curves: pre-Harvey, post-Harvey and the future projections with sea-level rise.” 

Building the Bridge

As Lin explains it, there's a gap in the scientific community. 

While studying at Stanford she attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference. While attending the conference, she realized she was the only structural engineer there. 

“I was surrounded by climate scientists,” she said with a laugh.

Lin obviously had a vested interest in climate science, but the gap between the information and the solutions stood out to her. With her background in earthquake engineering, she saw plenty of parallels between climate science and disaster mitigation engineering. 

“That's where I basically looked at the discussion, all the parallels, and I thought, ‘Hey, why not?'” Lin explained. “That inspired me to work on these projects.”

She wanted to help bridge the gap, so Lin looked back to her academic grandfather, Cornell, who worked to combine earthquake science and engineering. Cornell combined the study of earthquakes and the hazards associated with them with civil engineering. Lin saw an opportunity to do the same thing while looking at sea-level rise. 

“The different disciplines are concerned about the different things,” she explained. “With earthquake science the output is ground motion, right? Then that becomes the input for structural analysis. It's the same thing with climate scientists. Maybe they have all these different outputs, but they pretty much end there.

“Then the engineering community basically relies on those experts to provide the hazard input to study engineering impact. But sometimes that interface is what's lacking, because there are very few people who are working on both.”

Combining climate science and engineering, Lin believes, will provide critical insights into the best practices for mitigating future disasters. 

“That's key, understanding both the science and the engineering,” she said. “Then you understand how the inputs change the output. And from the engineering perspective, what would be the important damaging characteristics to consider?”

For Lin and Luo, they hope providing a less costly framework for creating models can be part of the bridge between climate science and engineering. 

“It's pretty exciting,” Luo said of their work. “If more and more researchers are working in this area, I think it will bring more knowledge to the general public and remind everybody this is a real issue. 

“We need to face it. We need to figure out more strategies to prepare us, especially in the coastal regions, to face hazards like sea-level rise.”

The same concepts also can be applied away from sea-level rise and earthquakes. Wind, fire and a host of other natural disaster conditions create data points that scientists and engineers can work on together to help offset losses. 

For now, Lin's focus is on narrowing down the models, making them easier to produce and more accurate. She's also leaning on technology. Machine learning, virtual reality visualization and a vision for connecting more people to help find solutions are all on her horizon.

All in the name of helping humanity deal with future issues.  

“These are very tough problems, but they are pressing ones to address because we don't really have that much time,” Lin said. 

“It's basically a race to see what we can do during our limited time here.”