River & Coastal Research Laboratory Field Trip

By Maddie Duhon


On Tuesday, September 30, 2014, our environmental communication class took a field trip to the Vincent A. Forte River and Coastal Research Laboratory. This building, a two-minute drive from LSU’s campus, houses a small-scale physical model of the lower 80 miles of the Mississippi River.


Experiments on this model, along with numerical model simulations, provide data that will hopefully guide diversion planning and design. The physical model is used to study the potential for large-scale river and sediment diversions in coastal restoration.

Our tour guide, Dr. Clinton Wilson, showed us the old model and part of the new one. Dr. Wilson is a professor in LSU’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and an expert in Mississippi river hydraulics and sediment transfer. He has been studying the path sediment takes in the Mississippi River for years, which showed with his passionate explanation of what we saw that day.

Dr. Wilson

Dr. Wilson

The photos below show seven sections of the new model. Each panel is five by ten feet and weighs 1,000 pounds. Eventually there will be 216 panels housed on the Baton Rouge water campus.


The topography for the model comes from a dozen sources that are put into a major geographic system. It is then scaled down to the model’s dimensions. A machine spends eight to 30 hours cutting the details into the compressed foam board’s surface. Then the panels are glued together.

The yellow cylinder pictured here is a sonic acoustic device that measures distance. It sends signals to the cylinderwater, which bounce back, recording how far the water is. This data will be wirelessly connected to laptops for instant data recording. To model sediment that is found in the river, the scientists had to figure out what material to use for the experiments. The sediment here mimics sand found in the river, but is actually larger and lighter than the actual sand for it to move the same way.

With this model, scientists will be able to run experiments about high-water events in Louisiana. An example would be during a high-water event, what spillway overflowed, what happened as water moved to the gulf, how much water moved, and how much sediment will be replicated. This calibration is done to make sure the model can mimic what occurred in the real-life event.

Original model, Photo by Jim Zietz, LSU University Relations

Original model, Photo by Jim Zietz, LSU University Relations

Once the model is established as accurately working, it can be used to look at future scenarios of what will happen to sediment in the river if the Gulf rises. Because of the size and type of model, it can replicate one year of activity in one hour. The old model could do one year in thirty minutes, but projecting very far in the future becomes less accurate the further you go.

Once construction is completed of the new building for the 216-panel model to be housed, the more detailed model will provide more reliable results. There is one problem with the new model being HUGE. With the original model, when people visited the lab, it was easy for them to observe when sediment was moving. Wilson told a story about kindergarteners coming to observe and sticking their hands in the water, playing with the sediment, and basically being little kids. Now the obstacle is to communicate things people won’t see since they won’t be as close up. Our course is titled Environmental Communication because we study the basic principles of communicating science. There is an art of communicating science. Turning science into stories can be a challenge, from translating jargon to simplifying extremely dense material. The new building will have large screens to show what is going on up close. There will also be a large exhibit area for outreach activities and explanations of the research. The museum-like displays will illustrate different aspects of the lower Mississippi River.

Another great aspect of this research Dr. Wilson mentioned was that this project has allowed thirty students to gain experience with real hands-on research. Several graduate students are also creating numerical models of the physical model.

According to his bio page on LSU’s website. Dr. Wilson’s research interests are: “High Resolution 3D Imaging of Porous Media Systems Groundwater Modeling Small-Scale Physical Modeling of Flow and Sediment in the Mississippi River Delta.” His passion for this subject was shown clearly in the short hour or so we spent with him. Our class appreciated his time taken to show us this cool research.


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