Dr. Jeff Melby recently finished a three-decade career with the highest honors a researcher can receive from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, leaving a legacy of research that has reduced coastal risk around the world.
Melby was named the 2017 Researcher of the Year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters. The award came close on the heels of being named ERDC Researcher of the Year. Originally hailing from Portland, Oregon, Melby was part of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory and focused his career on reducing risk from coastal storms.
Over his 30-year career, the means of accomplishing that goal have varied from concrete to super computers.
Melby first joined ERDC in 1987, and started working coastal issues almost immediately. He was assigned to a project researching the repeated breakage of coastal protective structures known as doloss in Crescent City, California.
Melby and ERDC’s George Turk worked together on a revised design for a structure that would still be a protective interlocking block, but without the point of failure the doloss was showing. Inspiration came as it does to many engineers – on a napkin – but eventually led to ERDC establishing international patents on the design of the Core-Loc, an improved, resilient protective structure 15 feet long and weighing 42 tons.
“I was literally working the problem out on a napkin in the San Francisco,” Melby recalled. “At the time, it was really uncommon for the Corps of Engineers to have an international patent. Over time we licensed those patents, and the manufacturers have built millions of Core-Locs around the world.”
Melby even had the opportunity to see his invention in use, protecting coastlines from California to South Africa and beyond.
Melby’s recent honors from ERDC and USACE recognized his work on coastal storm modeling. ERDC researchers can model coastal storms – including impacts of storm surge and waves – using the ERDC-developed Coastal Hazards Rapid Prediction System. ERDC’s modeling capability was employed in preparation for Hurricane Harvey’s landfall to forecast flooding depths in and around Houston.
In the last decade, the ability to model coastal storms to assess risk along the coasts has improved vastly. The planets were aligned, according to Melby. The greater modeling capability, combined with improved technical capabilities, ERDC’s modeling expertise, and the wealth of data in the CSTORM database have made it possible to model thousands of storms.
“The things we’re doing are really unique. The Corps hasn’t really done this in the past,” said Melby. “We’re always interested in answering the question, ‘What’s the risk?’ It’s not until recently, after Hurricane Katrina, that we’ve started to really capture the whole picture of coastal risk.
Using half of each of ERDC’s two on-site supercomputers to model the storms, researchers were able to model storms at a high level of fidelity to capture the full range of coastal storms. According to Melby, the goal is to map the entire probability space – ranging from routine storms to the 1-in-a-million event – which feeds into models that use machine learning. The machine learning models mimic detailed processes for storm surge and waves in seconds rather than the hours or days required it took to run these high fidelity models in the past.
Refining models ultimately serves to better gauge risk: knowing not just the outputs of the model, but also the degree of certainty of the model, helps decision makers better assess risk.
“Our goal is always to understand risk. If our models show us that the uncertainty is high, we know we need to sharpen our pencils. Where do we spend resources to get more bang for the buck? This effort makes for better risk estimates,” he said.
For Melby, being named Researcher of the Year is an accolade more for his team and ERDC than a personal accomplishment.
“Even though it was given to me, it represents the work of my team. Everything we’ve accomplished is the product of a group of talented people,” he said. “Everybody steps up, and we have so many creative, smart people.”