"For our purposes, we assumed that the health of the reef would only be important in terms of the drag it exerted on the wave," said Kunkel, who is currently working as a research assistant at Tsinghua University in China. "If you have a healthy reef, it has lots of live coral branching out, sticking a lot of small obstacles into the water. A dead reef, on the other hand, is not as rough -- it tends to erode and exerts less drag on the wave."
A turbulent mountain of water crashing over a complicated rough surface presented Kunkel with a number of obstacles for her own study -- specifically, how to find a way to express each of these effects with a mathematical formula that a computer could employ to simulate it. Different complex parameters had to be considered one by one: the width and depth of the reef; the roughness of its surface; the size of the lagoon behind it; and the slope of the coast beyond. And the overarching element was the wave itself and its interaction with all these obstacles. Eventually, Kunkel found a set of equations that provided a limited but comprehensive picture of a tsunami strike.
"We had to idealize a number of factors, because we wanted to create a model that could be used for a general shoreline," Kunkel said. "For example, we had to consider a perfectly even ocean floor, because uneven ones can funnel a wave into a certain area."
Despite the limitations of the model, Oppenheimer said it provides a sound basis for the team's conclusions.
"The general conclusion is that a healthy reef might provide twice as much protec