43.4623° N • 3.8100° W

At the forefront of maritime science in Spain & Europe: IH Cantabria

The port city of Santander has always looked toward the sea as a source of both opportunities and threats. Until 1900, its growth was closely linked to Spain’s maritime trade with the New World. Today the city, capital of the autonomous community of Cantabria, hosts one of the most impressive scientific facilities in the world for studying everything to do with water.

The Environmental Hydraulics Institute IH Cantabria aims to provide us with the knowledge and tools needed to deal with all water-related problems, including erosion, drought, storm pattern changes and the rise in sea level as well as social, supply and sanitation problems. But a deeper understanding of the marine environment will also allow us to make the most of what the sea offers especially in terms of generating power.

IH Cantabria’s approach is truly multidisciplinary: in order to address all the facets of the various problems, they employ people with knowledge of physics, engineering and biology as well as experts in economic, social and legal questions. This incredible team also has at their disposal an extremely well-equipped scientific complex which includes the Great Tank.

The Great Tank is a huge basin of water (44m x 30m x 10m) designed to reproduce marine conditions on a large scale. It can hold 5.5 million litres of water and simulate waves of up to 20 meters and winds of 150 kilometres per hour, making it possible to approximate real events at sea quite closely. It has enabled scientists to study, for the first time, what happens in the open sea at depths of up to 1km. This has made possible projects such as “Mermaid”, which promotes the development of technologies for wind and wave energy at great depths – a major step forward, because ocean energy could easily supply the world’s demand – but designing suitable devices has been difficult given the complexity of the marine environment. Any installation set up far off-shore would have to be built to withstand unusual events like storm surges and giant waves.

Unfortunately, the Great Tank was not operational when Yldau and Fabian visited, but there was still plenty to marvel at. Guided expertly by its Lab manager Alvaro, our travellers were able to check out his Coastal Engineering, Oceanography and Hydraulics Laboratory (IHLab Hydro), which is perhaps not quite as big but still impressive. Alvaro switched on his COCOTsu (Wave-Current-Tsunami Flume) for them: It’s a 56 meter long wave tank which has been designed to test the performance of medium and large scale coastal protection structures, floating structures and many other things to do with waves crashing ashore.

But Yldau and Fabian didn’t have to restrict themselves to science when it came to waves: Antonio, researcher on waves… and a very good surfer, took them to the nearby beach for a spin on the board! Perfect.

IH Cantabria is clearly at the forefront of science in Europe, with spill-over effects benefiting local small and medium-sized enterprises. They have already designed solutions to address some major environmental risks present in coastal areas, including flooding, tsunamis and oil spills, and conducted numerous studies for environmental agencies around the world as well as the World Bank and the United Nations.

IH Cantabria has also made a pretty cool video for their 10th anniversary, watch it here!

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