Posts Tagged scientific publishing

Lake Erie Is My Laboratory

I recently published another scientific paper in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE. Since PLoS ONE is Open Access, anyone can read the paper without a journal subscription:

Using Wind Setdown and Storm Surge on Lake Erie to Calibrate the Air-Sea Drag Coefficient

The publication date was August 19, 2013. Here is the full citation:
Drews C (2013) Using Wind Setdown and Storm Surge on Lake Erie to Calibrate the Air-Sea Drag Coefficient. PLoS ONE 8(8): e72510. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072510

The purpose of the research was to validate the results of the COAWST ocean model (Coupled-Ocean-Atmosphere-Wave- Sediment Transport Modeling System) with actual observations of storm surge. The paper has a lot of figures that we call “spaghetti plots;” these are charts that show multiple time series on a single plot. We call them spaghetti plots because they look like a bunch of noodles stretched from left to right across the page:

Figure 11. December 2006: Wind setdown and storm surge, with experiments E4, E18, E21, and E23. From Drews (2013).

Figure 11. December 2006: Wind setdown and storm surge, with experiments E4, E18, E21, and E23. From Drews (2013).

In Figure 11, the black line represents the observations of water level taken at the Fermi power plant at the western end of the lake, and at Buffalo at the eastern end of the lake. The colored lines represent various model runs. The goal here is to get the colored lines to match the black line as closely as possible. This is done by adjusting the COAWST model parameters in a sensible manner. Adjustments include: the numerical formula for the air-sea drag coefficient, the bottom drag coefficient, the influence of waves, and the algorithm used to simulate wave action, and the presence of ice on the lake.

Why Lake ErieLake Erie happens to be a near-perfect natural laboratory for conducting this kind of experiment. The lake is long, shallow, and subject to strong winds from the west that cause the lake water to slosh back and forth like a big bathtub. Since the lake is surrounded by populated areas in the United States and Canada, there are many weather stations along the coastline that provide archived meteorological data. Lake Erie is also an important seaway for international commerce, and NOAA provides accurate measurements of tides and currents at major ports on the lake. I can run simulation experiments with confidence in the observations that I am trying to match.

The paper describes two windstorms on Lake Erie: December 1–2, 2006 and January 30–31, 2008. Lake Erie is 400 km long and 90 km wide. Since I don’t have a gigantic fan big enough to blow the lake water around and measure what happens, I have to wait for nature to do the blowing instead. Fortunately for me, these windstorms occur often enough to provide several usable data sets. Better yet, there were no human fatalities in either of these storms.

The potential result of the research is a more accurate model for storm surge. When building coastal defenses such as floodwalls, it is crucial to know how high the ocean will rise when the next hurricane comes ashore. The difference between building a seawall one foot higher than the maximum surge, and one foot lower than the maximum surge, can be disastrous.

Moses Crossing the Red Sea

In 2010 I published another paper on wind setdown and storm surge:
Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta

That earlier paper reported the emergence of a land bridge in the eastern Nile delta under certain conditions of wind speed and direction. For readers of funmurphys who are interested in Moses crossing the Red Sea, the ocean model indicated that Moses would have 4 hours to lead the Israelites across the yam suf.

At the time, I suspected that the estimate of 4.0 hours was somewhat conservative; that is, the dry passage probably would have stayed open for a longer period of time. There were several factors that we did not include in the 2010 research, such as waves and a drag coefficient more suited to coastal conditions. I had a hunch that these additional factors would increase the duration of the passage. However, the rigorous nature of scientific publishing requires that scientists cannot publish more than a few paragraphs of speculation; peer-reviewed journals require concrete results supported by evidence from observations and computer models.

The Lake Erie research provided a chance for me to test my earlier hunch. I was pleased to find that my hunch was correct; but better yet, that I could provide a revised number for the crossing time. Here it is: Moses had over 8 hours to evacuate all the Israelites from Pi-Hahiroth to safety at Tell Kedua on the other side of the yam suf. Or, for scholars who are more interested in the wind speed, an east wind blowing at 24 meters per second is sufficient to hold open the dry passage for 4 hours (the 2010 paper reported 28 m/s).

Figure 13. Corrections applied to the Lake of Tanis and the Kedua Gap. From Drews (2013).

Figure 13. Corrections applied to the Lake of Tanis and the Kedua Gap. From Drews (2013).

I like this result, because it shows that there is some engineering tolerance to the solution. Although God can of course do anything He wants to do, as an engineer I am happier with a answer in which the parameters can vary a bit and still work. The 2013 paper demonstrates that the Kedua Gap is a more robust reconstruction of Exodus 14 than originally thought.

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Bo Hellström and copyright protection

I have at my desk an interesting and rare book: “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea”, by Professor B. Hellström, published in Stockholm in 1950. Bo Hellstrom was a professor of hydraulics in Stockholm, Sweden from 1914-1955. From Ian Larsen’s paper:

In 1923 he [B. Hellstrom] receives a grant to study wind driven seiches in lakes, a subject that he will follow on and off for a long time to come. In 1924 he suggest that it was a well timed wind-generated seiche that was to allow Moses and his tribe to cross the Red Sea and subsequently to drown Faraoh and his army. The reader of the Bible will see that Bo Hellstrom’s theory is well covered in the actual text. Hollywood on the other hand got it completely wrong as usual. (Larsen 2003)

A remarkable thing about this particular book is that it contains a hand-written dedication on the inner page by Hellstrom himself. “Professor A.E. Bretting, with best wishes for Christmas and the coming year, from Bo Hellstrom”. He touched the same page that I am touching! I like that.

The study of physical laws underlying the parting of the Red Sea has a long history. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in 94 AD urged people not to wonder if the strange narration in Exodus 14 “happened of its own accord”. But as any parent knows, as soon as you tell kids not to do something, they go ahead and do it! Generations of scientists have ignored Josephus’ advice, preferring to follow Psalm 111:2 instead. Samuel Bartlett in 1879 suggested that Moses might have taken advantage of wind-lowered water levels, crossing on a shallow ford southeast of modern Suez. Sir Alexander Tulloch actually observed a wind setdown event on Lake Manzala, which led him to conclude in 1896 that the famous passage took place between the Great Bitter Lake and Lake Timsah.

Professor Hellstrom brought the science of hydraulics to bear on the Exodus problem in 1924. In his lab he constructed a wind tunnel over a trough containing water, roughly modeling the topography of the northern reaches of the Gulf of Suez. He used an underwater sill to provide a dry crossing with water on both sides at Serapeum, the same site suggested by Tulloch. His book shows maps and detailed diagrams and photos of the water-level gauges that he built on the side of his wave tank to measure the water surface accurately. Bo Hellstrom was quite the experimentalist! His diagrams look a lot like mine.

Thus, by means of this laboratory experiment, which admittedly is only approximate, proof was obtained of the fact that it may very well be conceived that the wind uncovered the bottom of the Red Sea at Serapeum. It was possible by means of these experiments and exhaustive theoretical investigations to establish the natural laws which prevail. (Hellström 1950, p. 21)

So I have this fascinating book in my hands, and I would like to share Hellström’s scholarship with the rest of the world. As Dr. Frank J. Little, Jr. has stated, “Our purpose is to return Hellstrom’s Exodus hypothesis to the scientific community, plus quantify and update it in light of newly synthesized evidence.” How can I do that? Bartlett’s book is available through Google Books, and anyone can read it on-line. I had to get Hellstrom’s book through an Interlibrary Loan with California State University at Fresno. That’s a big difference in terms of ease of access! People will find and read Samuel Bartlett quicker and more often than Bo Hellstrom.

Samuel Bartlett died in 1898. His work is now in the public domain, and this is why Google can legally digitize his book and make it available on-line. Bo Manne Hellstrom died in 1967. Sweden has a copyright term of 70 years after the author’s death, so his copyright will not expire until the fair year 2037. And until then, “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea” will languish in Interlibrary Loan Land. Ick.

If Hellstrom’s book suddenly became an overnight sensation, and if scads of people were clamoring for it and paying thousands of dollars to obtain one of the rare copies, then the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm would take notice and starting printing a new edition of the book. They would make lots of money and send royalties to Hellstrom’s heirs, wherever they are now. That’s why copyrights endure long after an author’s death, and the system works well for people like Mark Twain and Walt Disney.

Unfortunately, the copyright system is not serving B. Hellström very well. His book contains scholarly and historical interest, but with all due respect, “The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea” will never be a best-seller like “Huckleberry Finn”. Nor does anyone expect that – scholars are valued for their intellectual contributions, not necessarily for their popularity with the general public. Bo Hellstrom’s work will remain locked up for another 26 years where only a few determined scholars will read it; unlike his predecessor Bartlett, who can be read by any high school student who enters the right search string into Google.

Professor Hellstrom would have benefited from Open Access. It would have increased his scholarly impact. We would still be reading his work and he would get all the credit. Too bad the Open Access movement came too late for him.

Special thanks to Professor Ian Larsen of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm for supplying additional information on Bo Hellström. Larsen adds, “A E Bretting was professor in Hydraulic Engineering in Copenhagen and retired around 1958.” I would love to know how Hellstrom’s book made its way from Copenhagen to Cal State Fresno, but I have enough historical mysteries for one lifetime already!


Bartlett, Samuel Colcord, 1879. From Egypt to Palestine: through Sinai, the wilderness and the south country. Harper, New York, New York, USA.

Drews, Carl, and Weiqing Han, 2010. Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. PLoS ONE, 5(8): e12481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012481

Drews, Carl, 2011. Could Wind Have Parted the Red Sea? Weatherwise, January-February 2011, 64, 30-35. doi:10.1080/00431672.2011.536122

Hellström, Bo, 1950. The Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea. The Institution of Hydraulics, The Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. First published in the Swedish language in 1924.

Larsen, Ian, 2003. A La Recherce du Temps Perdu: The times of J Gust Richert and thereafter. Zentech Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

Tulloch, Alexander Bruce, 1896. Passage of the Red Sea by the Israelites. Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute (now Faith and Thought) 28, 267-280. The Victoria Institute, London, United Kingdom.

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