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USGS Scientists Raise Coastal Change Awareness at Community Hurricane Expo

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Kara Doran
Above: Kara Doran rebuilds the beach of the Shifting Sands tank, a model that demonstrates coastal erosion. [larger version]

Hilary Stockdon
Above: Hilary Stockdon (left) explains a model that shows what would happen to Pinellas County if a Category 3 hurricane were to make landfall in the region. [larger version]

Hilary Stockdon shows the storm-surge-inundation potential for Pinellas County beaches.
Above: Hilary Stockdon shows the storm-surge-inundation potential for Pinellas County beaches. [larger version]

The Science Center of Pinellas invited U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists from the Coastal Change Hazards Project to participate in their second annual Hurricanes and Other Natural Disasters Expo held on June 5, 2010, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Three hundred and fifty people attended. The event was held to coincide with the beginning of hurricane season, which began June 1st and lasts until November 30th.

Oceanographer Hilary Stockdon gave a presentation on Coastal Change Hazards research, including what could happen to Pinellas County and its beaches if a hurricane were to strike. Karen Morgan, Joseph Long, and Kara Doran set up and staffed a booth that featured the "Shifting Sands" tank, an interactive model that demonstrates the dramatic coastal erosion that can occur during a hurricane or extreme storm event. Representatives from the National Weather Service, American Red Cross, Pinellas County Emergency Management Services, Pinellas County Communications Department, and Bay News 9, who also held information seminars at the event, joined the USGS at the Expo.

"The goal of the Expo is to provide awareness, so that the public does not become complacent and is prepared for the unexpected," said Pam Bittaker, project manager for the Science Center of Pinellas. "USGS has a lot to do with our environment, and the hurricanes actually do quite a bit of damage to our environment, so I thought it would be a great idea to invite USGS to participate."

Stockdon focused on the extreme damage previously wrought by severe storms and the changes they can bring to the coastal environment. Her presentation used numerous prestorm and poststorm photos of areas that had been hit by hurricanes to show the audience that structural damage during hurricanes is not only due to hurricane-force winds but also to sediment movement from coastal erosion.

"People always think of hurricane hazards as wind and flooding, but it's also important for them to understand that land moves during hurricanes; waves and currents move sand, covering roads and eroding beaches," said Stockdon. Stockdon also defined concepts such as inundation, when an island is completely submerged under the rising storm surge, and overwash, when waves exceed the elevation of the dune and sand is transported across the island. Images and lidar (light detection and ranging) graphics were used to show areas where sediment eroded or accumulated because of overwash, as well as other storm-induced coastal changes, such as how the shape of a barrier island can change as a result of a storm. (Lidar is an aircraft-based remote sensing system that determines distance to an object or surface using laser pulses.)  These data enable scientists to understand why diffferent beaches respond differently to storms, and to provide people with information as to why certain areas are better than others at accumulating sand.

"Interacting with the public at these events is vital," said Morgan. "We need to do as much as we can to educate our neighbors about the impacts of hurricanes on our beaches and changes to coastal environments due to extreme storms."

At the booth, the display and shifting sands tank were a big hit. USGS scientists talked to visitors constantly throughout the day. Pinellas County residents were most interested in the storm-surge-inundation potential graphic that illustrates what could happen if a Category 3 hurricane were to make landfall in the Pinellas County region, looking for their homes and favorite beaches to see how they would be affected. "It turned a light on in some people's minds when they saw maps of overwash and inundation and then saw their house," said Stockdon. Booth visitors gained information about previous hurricanes, saw examples of coastal change, and learned about scientific models that predict what might happen as a result of a hurricane. 

An additional area of interest for attendees at the Expo was how a hurricane could affect where oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill could be deposited on beaches. One of the USGS models presented showed the possible oiling of Pinellas County during a hurricane. Tides, surge, waves, and topography all play a part in where and how far inland water, and whatever is in the water, will move along the Gulf coastline. These factors were all included during scientific modeling efforts. The models are tools that scientists use to compare the island elevation with the elevation of hurricane-induced water levels to create maps of where oil might be deposited during a storm.  In Pinellas County, the model shows that almost the entire barrier-island system would be inundated by storm surge, and if oil were in the area, the islands would be covered.

This was the first year in which USGS participated in the Expo, but we hope to return next year to share this information and any new findings with the public. Through participation in local events, we are contributing to public awareness about coastal vulnerability and hazards.

Related Web Sites
Science Center of Pinellas
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cover story:
Scientists Map the Arctic Seafloor

Ocean Acidification: Research on Top of the World

Tracking Coral Larvae

Comparisons Between Northern and Southern Hemisphere Wetlands

ResearchMarine Research in Dry Tortugas National Park

Sediment Input to the Fringing Reef of Moloka‘i, Hawai‘i

Outreach Scientists Raise Awareness at Hurricane Expo

Meetings Coastal Zone 2011

Publications Aug. / Sept. 2010 Publications

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Updated December 02, 2016 @ 12:09 PM (JSG)