Water—oceans, seas, storms, and rain—are a source of beauty, inspiration, and recreation for billions of people. As with many natural processes, part of that beauty is seated in the untamed grandness of those systems, which can sometimes turn hazardous. Water hazards have the potential to impact almost everyone on the planet, because roughly half of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a coastline. Those who don’t are still at risk for experiencing local or regional flooding events. Natural Hazards at the University of Washington includes scientists and researchers working across water-related hazards, each with their own area of expertise—from extreme precipitation and regional climate change to roadways and mountain snow melt. In partnership with other experts, we are working toward resilient mitigation approaches to water hazards, including tsunamis, coastal threats, floods.


Tsunamis are are series of enormous, seismic sea waves created by an underwater geologic disturbance like an earthquake, volcano, or landslide. These colossal waves are capable of moving at hundreds of miles per hour in the open ocean and can smash into our coastlines with waves exceeding 100 feet. Tsunamis can greatly impact coastal towns and those who live there, especially along the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire”—a geographically active area where tectonic shifts make volcanoes and earthquakes more common than in other places. This year, two UW mathematicians and their collaborators developed a tsunami model that simulates water’s movement. Recently, their model was used to help design the first-ever tsunami refuge structure in the country on the roof of a western Washington elementary school.


Coastal Threats

Coastal cities have long been a destination for those seeking sand, sunshine, and surf. Even after vacation ends and people return to their more landlocked locales, more than 50 percent of people in the United States remain on or near the coast. Naturally occurring hazards like storms, swelling tides, and currents constantly affect coastal processes, where erosion, landslides, and flooding can be easily triggered. At the University of Washington, coastal threats are researched from many perspectives, including scientists and researchers working in the environmental sciences, social sciences, policy, urban design, and others disciplines.

Flooded Cars


Anywhere it rains, a flood can occur—it’s one of the most common natural hazards in the United States and across the globe. Outdated, clogged, or at-capacity drainage systems and fast accumulation of rainfall, as well as hurricane systems and full levees can lead to flood conditions. Flooding can be local, impacting one neighborhood or a community, or very large, affecting entire river basins and multiple states. While some floods develop slowly, flash floods—the number one weather-related killer in the United States—can develop in moments and often bring along rushing water, large rocks, and trees. Floods are an area of concentration for the team working on natural hazards at the University of Washington, and the College of Built Environments’ Master of Infrastructure Planning & Management degree now offers a degree option in floodplain management aimed at inspiring and equipping the next generation of professionals working in floodplain mitigation.

‘Black swan’ events strike animal populations

Black swan events are rare and surprising occurrences that happen without notice and often wreak havoc on society. The metaphor has been used to describe banking collapses, devastating earthquakes and other major surprises in financial, social and natural systems.
A new analysis by the University of Washington and Simon Fraser University is the first to document that black swan events also occur in animal populations and usually manifest as massive, unexpected die-offs. 

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UW’s Kristin Laidre awarded Pew marine fellowship to study effects of climate change, subsistence hunting on polar bears

Polar bears depend on sea ice for essential tasks like hunting and breeding. As Arctic sea ice disappears due to climate change, bears across the species’ 19 subpopulations are feeling the strain.
But even as scientists try to quantify just how much melting sea ice is affecting polar bears, another group that depends on the iconic mammal for subsistence also is at risk of losing an important nutritional and economic resource. 

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‘The blob’ of abnormal conditions boosted Western U.S. ozone levels

An unusually warm patch of seawater off the West Coast in late 2014 and 2015, nicknamed “the blob,” had cascading effects up and down the coast. Its sphere of influence was centered on the marine environment but extended to weather on land.
A University of Washington Bothell study now shows that this strong offshore pattern also influenced air quality. The climate pattern increased ozone levels above Washington, Oregon, western Utah and northern California, according to a study published Feb. 

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