Weird waves cause big trouble on small lands in the middle of the big blue wet thing

Originally presented earlier today at the AGU 2021 Fall Meeting in the “Upgoer Five” Session, this video was inspired by the XKCD comic and book in which scientific concepts are described using only the 1000 most-common words in the English language. I participated in the session last year and had so much fun, I thought I would try it again with my coral reef research.

Unfortunately, ”ocean” and ”sea” were not on the list, so I had to go with ”big blue wet thing” instead. Want to give it a try yourself? Here is a handy tool which checks your writing to see if it meets the list of 1000 most common words: It’s harder than it looks!

Here is a summary of my video:

Some small but beautiful lands in the middle of the big blue wet thing were built by tiny animals that turn into rock when they die. Although these lands might seem perfect and calm most of the time, they are actually in big trouble. The big water is going up and up and up, and the little lands could be completely under it before our kids grow old. However, they are also in trouble right now — waves can hit the little lands and make them go under the water too, even if just for a short while. These waves can hurt people and make the drinking water not-drink-able. It is hard to guess if the waves will cause trouble because they break in different ways than we are used to when they hit the rocks built by animals. The waves become longer and weirder as they move across the rocks, and can hit the land with more power than we would expect. It is even harder to guess what the waves will do because every small land made of rocks built by animals is different, and there are so many of them all around the world. To keep everyone safe, we showed a computer lots of made-up waves so that it could learn how waves look when they hit different sorts of rocks and land. The computer can then make good guesses about what real waves would do if they hit real rocks and land. If the computer thinks that the waves will cause trouble, we can warn people to go somewhere safer until the waves stop. In this way, we hope to keep everyone’s feet dry until long after our kids are old.

You can find more about this stuff in bigger words here:

1. Pearson, S.G., Storlazzi, C.D., van Dongeren, A.R., Tissier, M.F.S., & Reniers, A.J.H.M. (2017). A Bayesian‐based system to assess wave‐driven flooding hazards on coral reef‐lined coasts. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 122(12), 10099-10117.

2. Pearson, S.G. (2016). Predicting Wave-Induced Flooding on Low-Lying Tropical Islands Using a Bayesian Network. MSc Thesis, Delft University of Technology.

3. Roelvink, F.E., Storlazzi, C.D., van Dongeren, A.R., & Pearson, S.G. (2021). Coral reef restorations can be optimized to reduce coastal flooding hazards. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8, 440.

4. Scott, F., Antolinez, J.A., McCall, R., Storlazzi, C.D., Reniers, A.J.H.M., & Pearson, S.G. (2020). Hydro-morphological characterization of coral reefs for wave runup prediction. Frontiers in Marine Science, 7, 361.

Keeping our feet dry and safe from the big water with lots of tiny rocks!

Some ideas are really hard to understand, but it helps if we can talk about them using simple words. One of my favourite books of all time is the Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind XKCD. In it, Munroe tries to describe scientific concepts using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. With the help of a text editor to flag any illegal words, I prepared the following summary of my PhD research, and am presenting it tomorrow in a special science education session at the online American Geophysical Union conference. If you are not attending, you can also check out my presentation here:

Here are the words that go with my pictures:

There is a very low land next to the big water. It has a lot of wind and it rains there most of the time. It is so low that it would be under water now if people didn’t build big walls around it and suck all the water out. The big water is going up and up and up, and we want to keep everyone’s feet dry so that they stay safe for a long time to come. The plan is to put lots and lots of very tiny rocks along the edge between the big water and the very low land. When there is too much wind, the big water will make huge waves. These will hurt the wall of very tiny rocks, but if we have enough very tiny rocks, the big water won’t get inside the very low land and the people will be safe. It is hard to guess where these very tiny rocks will go when we put them on the edge of the big water, because the waves move them around. We use water-counters, rock-counters, and computers to learn more about how the very tiny rocks move through the water and make better guesses about what they will do. People in many other lands are also worried about huge waves and the big water going up, so we hope that the things we learn in the very low land can help them too.

This was one of the most fun presentations I have ever made, and it changed the way I think about my research. After all, if I can’t explain what I’m doing, the dissertation I have spent five years writing will just collect dust on a bookshelf instead of contributing something useful to the world.

But perhaps even more importantly for the fulfillment of my muppet-loving childhood dreams, it meant being able to legitimately refer to “the big blue wet thing” at a Serious Scientific Conference.