Screen readers: Two navigational links to follow.Skip to site navigation.Skip to page content.
The University of Iowa News Services
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release


July 28, 2008

Photo: IIHR engineers collect data from the Iowa river. Photo credit: Carmen Langel

Engineers use flood of 2008 for research, future preparation

In a case of "making lemonade out of lemons," researchers at the University of Iowa College of Engineering's IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering research unit are using data collected on the flood of 2008 to study floods in general and prepare for any future floods along the Iowa River in particular.

Larry Weber, IIHR director and professor of civil and environmental engineering, noted that the experience of preparing the Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory to weather the onslaught of the Iowa River occupied much of the staff's time and energy in the days immediately preceding the flood. But after the floodwaters entered the building's basement -- flooding fire suppression and air conditioning equipment and forcing the staff to evacuate -- his focus shifted.

"It became clear to me that we had a historic opportunity to collect information on a historic flood," he said. "I contacted IIHR colleague Witek Krajewski in regard to conducting a lidar (laser radar) survey on river water levels in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor."

Krajewski arranged for the National Science Foundation's (NSF) National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, based at the University of Florida, to map the elevation of floodwaters along the Iowa River between the Coralville Reservoir and Columbus Junction, Iowa, an area of some 500 square kilometers. The individual measurements on the computerized map number 50 per square meter with 1 centimeter of vertical resolution -- sensitive enough that you could see a softball lying on a baseball field if you needed to.

"Imagine everything mapped to within about a centimeter. It's just incredible," Weber said. He added that the data is important, since comparing the water levels during the height of the flood to those when the Iowa River is below flood stage will tell researchers where water tends to pool and slow down along the flood-widened shoreline -- indicating regions where planning experts may want to pay special attention when designating future land use.

In addition to securing a map of the water surface of the Iowa River, IIHR researchers were asked by the NSF to request a map of the Clear Creek watershed in Johnson County, a region where several IIHR researchers -- including Jerald Schnoor, Thanos Papanicolaou, Craig Just and Marion Muste -- continue to conduct research projects. All the researchers and their projects will benefit from the nearly 200 square kilometers of new Clear Creek data, Weber said.

Yet another surprising research-related benefit of the flood was a chance to become better acquainted with NSF Director Arden Bement Jr. Having learned of the IIHR lidar survey, UI President Sally Mason suggested Weber contact Bement, a former colleague of hers at Purdue University, where he had served as a distinguished professor of nuclear engineering. Weber invited Bement to tour parts of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. He agreed and visited areas including Czech Village, thanks to the in-depth knowledge of Carmen Langel, currently an IIHR program associate and a former director of development and curator at the National Czech and Slovak Museum.

The tour also included visits to the UI's Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory, Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories, the UI campus and downtown Iowa City. Finally, Krajewski gave a presentation, "Living with Floods," in which he outlined how Iowans may need to prepare for future floods.

The result, said Weber, was a suggestion by the NSF director that IIHR submit proposals for flood-related research projects. It's good guidance to receive from Bement, who heads the only federal agency that funds research and education in all fields of science and engineering while directing a budget of more than $6 billion. That budget involves hundreds of programs that support roughly 200,000 scientists, engineers, educators and students across the country.

Weber noted that IIHR also is conducting scour evaluations of bridges, in cooperation with the rest of the Iowa engineering community, to ensure the bridges are safe. And, a project already funded by the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust of Muscatine, Iowa, will enable IIHR to map critical areas of the Iowa River bed along the UI campus using a device resembling a fish-finder, but with a powerful sonar beam that spreads out in a 160-degree cone.

"This, combined with the lidar data, will give us the most sophisticated rive data of its kind," Weber said. In addition, he noted that IIHR is coordinating its work on flood modeling with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, City of Iowa City, City of Coralville, various railroad firms and other organizations.

In summary, Weber said of the Flood of 2008, "I think the lemons we cut open have made some very good lemonade."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,