As a kid I was fascinated by “critters.” I caught my share of Texas snakes, “horned toads” and tarantulas. But San Antonio is land-locked. I never met a live ocean creature until I snorkeled in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and was amazed by the sea life I saw. My Marine Corps enlistment was ending, so I asked myself “How can I make a good living doing work I enjoy?” A college degree would help, so I began studying biology at San Antonio Community College. At first, I worked all day and attended night classes. But I earned credits slowly, so I found work as a hotel night auditor, which let me take more classes during the day. I finally completed my associate’s degree and transferred to St. Mary’s University. My imagination was captured by other scientific fields, and I switched my major to chemistry, then mathematics and, finally, physics!
I had enjoyed studying atoms, magnetic fields and other physics topics, but now wanted to work on something I could see and feel. While investigating graduate programs, I discovered that oceanography is “multi-disciplinary,” including biology, chemistry, geology and physics. Physicists could be oceanographers, too! Physical oceanographers study the water itself, such as currents, waves and phenomena like El Niño. I applied to several physics graduate programs and several oceanography programs and received two offers: one for medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, the other for oceanography at the University of Hawaii. The decision was a no-brainer–it was oceanography in Hawaii for me! I received my B.S. in Physics in 1967, and immediately married my sweetheart, Yolanda Cano. We left three days later for Hawaii on what turned out to be a 10-year honeymoon!
Dr. Brent Gallagher was my Master”s thesis advisor and mentor, and remains a friend to this day. He suggested a terrific project: the first comprehensive study of the physical oceanography of Honolulu”s Ala Wai Canal, a small tropical estuary. Yolanda pitched in to help with the fieldwork. From a small boat, we measured currents, water temperature, salinity and nutrients, and collected bacteriological samples. I completed my M.S. in 1970 with the publication of this work. The report provided an important baseline for future studies, and is a useful reference for marine ecologists.
It was Dr. Rudy Preisendorfer, an applied mathematician who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and my love of mathematics that drew me to work on tsunamis. Tsunamis are waves generated when a violent geophysical event like an earthquake, landslide, or explosive volcano creates a bump (or cavity) on the ocean surface. In deep water, the bump may be only a few meters high but ten to hundreds of miles across, so the sea surface slope is extremely gentle and the waves pass under a ship completely unnoticed. The deeper the water, the faster the waves travel. In the deepest water the waves reach speeds of 500 miles per hour. As the coast is approached, waves in back are in deeper water and travel faster than those in front. The waves are squeezed into a smaller area, but the total energy of the waves is constant. To offset the smaller area, the height of the waves increases, sometimes to more than 30 meters! In my Ph.D. thesis I developed a new mathematical way to describe how a tsunami behaves when it attacks a coastline or harbor. I completed my doctoral studies in 1975, the same year that Yolanda graduated. During that ceremony, I received my Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography. Yolanda, not to be outdone, earned two degrees–a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Art History. It was one of the most emotionally satisfying days of our lives.
Dangerous waves, and the mathematics of these waves, had captured my imagination. I continued working with Rudy for two more years. In 1977, I joined NOAA”s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle to work on the first oceanographic satellite, SEASAT, which took radar images of the ocean. This new type of wave data revealed many exciting discoveries, including snapshots of beautiful (but dangerous) wave patterns generated by hurricanes. After SEASAT, I led the PMEL Hazardous Waves Project. I currently lead the PMEL Tsunami Program. We use sophisticated computer models to simulate tsunami attacks on coastal communities; this helps identify areas that are at high risk, and provides valuable guidance to emergency managers. We have also built the first deep-ocean network of stations that track tsunamis and report them in real time, a project known as Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART). DART systems use a bottom pressure recorder to measure a tsunami. The measurements are sent acoustically to a surface buoy, which transmits data to a satellite, then to a Tsunami Warning Center. Research that focuses on saving lives and property is very satisfying, and I feel fortunate to have spent most of my career in this field.