Channeling Water Wisdom: They’re making waves at Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Hydraulics Lab in La Jolla

You may never have heard of the Hydraulics Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but it’s a spacious redwood building just off La Jolla Shores Drive that you’ve probably driven by dozens of times. Designed to conduct large-scale experiments studying water in motion, it features a 120-foot-long Glass Walled Wave Channel that generates waves and currents and overlooks a much larger-scale wave channel called the Pacific Ocean.

The 15,000-square-foot building, with its wavelike ceiling topping out at 26 feet, originally opened in 1964, and has been a welcoming space for faculty, students and researchers ever since. The “HLab” was established by Douglas Inman, Professor of Marine Geology at UC San Diego. Inman, a scientific pioneer and coastal activist who died last year at the age of 95, is considered the founder of the field of coastal oceanography.

A few weeks ago, I toured the space with Douglas Alden, the HLab’s Technology Application Group Lead. He also happens to be Data Designer for “The Wind Garden,” the new sonic art piece just added to UCSD’s Stuart Collection. (You can read it online at

Alden began working at SIO 30 years ago, when he was a student at UCSD. Starting in an engineering position, he branched out into coastal studies, climate research, meteorology and physical oceanography. He is currently involved in projects in Central and Northern California, dealing with rivers, reservoirs, and helping California prepare for upcoming problems created by climate change.

“SIO is a wonderful place,” he said. “I’ve been exposed to so many fields of study and worked with so many great scientists here ... and I can bike to work.” (He is also one of the founders of Bike/Walk Solana Beach, and rides his bike to the HLab every day, rain or shine.)

Another new project he’s part of is the HLab Maker Space, meant to build the next generation of scientists by offering them ample room, “cool tools” and exposure to faculty and researchers at SIO and UCSD. It’s expected to be up and running next month.

“I don’t have a day when there’s not something interesting going on,” Alden said.

Over the next few years, thanks to a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Hydraulics Lab will be building a very cool tool to add to their collection: a state-of-the-art Ocean Simulator. “It will allow us to accurately simulate the air-sea interface, not just waves, but the biology, chemistry and atmosphere that control what we experience in weather and climate,” said HLab director Grant Deane.

A grand opening of the Maker Space will take place at the beginning of 2018, and group tours of the Hydraulics Laboratory can be arranged.

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