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Innovation

The Bay Model and the loss of physical modeling

Physical models have been largely trumped by computer models, but there's still plenty of value in a test that you can touch.

A post-World War II plan to create dams and locks throughout the San Francisco Bay received the backing of planners and politicians who sought a means of routing more water from the Sierra Nevada to thirsty California cities and also bolster mobility through the Bay.

And if it wasn't for the Bay Model, a massive model of the Bay erected by the U.S. Corps and Engineers in 1959, the massive engineering plan may have been attempted. And that would have destroyed the Bay's estuary while failing to provide the hoped-for fresh drinking water.

But thanks to the model and the damage that the simulated dams illustrated, the plan was abandoned, explains a thought-provoking article in Miller-McCune.

The 1.5-acre facility is a near replica of the Bay and is still standing and open to the public. And it's free. Located in Sausalito, many kids who grew up in the Bay Area will recall it as a field trip destination.

But as civil engineers and planners became more dependent on computer modeling, the Bay Model's utility began to fade. Today, it's mainly used as a way to teach people about the Bay's life-support systems, the movements of tides and the salinity of the water and estuary.

For a time, the Bay Model served as a site for doing a hybrid of computer and physical modeling -- where the model would act like a testbed for computer-generated scenarios -- but this research was dashed in 2000, when the Corps of Engineers cut funding.

Dan Schaaf, who is the Bay Model's director, believes the Bay Model could and should be restored and upgraded and used for this hybrid physical model/computer model research.  He told Miller-McCune:

“The model could be used to validate theories regarding climate change, water supply, habitat, navigation, land use, flood control, and various disasters. The difficulty would be getting the numeric modeling community to embrace the model’s capabilities.”

For now, though, the Bay Model isn't even its complete self. It's been drained, has a number of leaks that need to fixed and is undergoing seismic retrofitting.

Maybe, if it can restored and refunded, it could help the next generation of scientists, reared on computer models, to understand the benefits of physical models. They could use the Bay Model to predict and prevent future threats to the Bay.

[Via: Miller-McCune]

Image: Flickr/Sarahkim

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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