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Spotlight on Sandy

Science Brings Clarity to Shifting Shores—The USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal

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[Slightly modified from USGS Science Features: Top Story, July 16, 2014.]

Houses in Rodanthe, North Carolina, are left in the waves at the ocean’s edge after the passage of Hurricane Isabel Above: Houses in Rodanthe, North Carolina, are left in the waves at the ocean’s edge after the passage of Hurricane Isabel, which made landfall as a category 2 storm in the Outer Banks on September 18, 2003. USGS photograph by Hilary Stockdon. [larger version]

Each and every day, waves move sand back and forth, onto and away from beaches. The thin ribbon of sandy barrier islands and beaches along America’s coastline shifts constantly, especially during hurricanes, nor’easters, and other extreme storms.

How vulnerable would your favorite beach be if a hurricane like Katrina, Ike, or Sandy paid a visit? What did your beach look like 50, 100, or 150 years ago? What might it look like in the future? About 40 percent of the nation’s population lives in coastal counties on both the East and West Coasts (see “What percentage of the American population lives near the coast?”), so answering questions like these will help protect millions of citizens who are at risk from changing sea level, retreating shorelines, and extreme coastal storms.

To help ensure safe and resilient coasts, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has created an online tool that allows anyone to interactively “see” past, present, and future hazards. This tool—the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal—can aid in decisions that involve emergency preparedness, ecosystem restoration, and where and how to develop coastal areas.

No sophisticated technology is required. The tool runs on web browsers, tablets, and smartphones. It is designed for a wide range of audiences, from federal and state agencies to non-governmental organizations, public entities, and private citizens.

“Our nation’s coastlines are constantly changing landscapes that pose unique management challenges,” said Suzette Kimball, USGS acting director. “This new USGS portal is truly one-of-a-kind, providing a credible foundation for making decisions to protect resources, reduce risk, and prevent economic losses.”

Aerial photographs of Rodanthe, North Carolina,
Above: Upper aerial photograph shows Rodanthe, North Carolina, looking south along the coast on August 30, 2011, three days after landfall of Hurricane Irene. The central and lower aerial photographs show pre-storm and post-storm extreme coastal change, with the yellow arrow in all three photographs pointing to the same cottage. USGS photograph by Karen Morgan. [larger version]

“Essentially, the portal is an interactive mapping product with layers of information, but don’t let that simple explanation be deceiving,” Kimball continued. “The portal is unique in that it compiles a diverse array of science—science that is unbiased—to provide a comprehensive picture needed to visualize and understand how coasts behave under various conditions.”

How It Works

One key component of the portal is the ability to explore coastal-hazard risks at varied scales, from a local area of interest to a national perspective. This location-specific capability is extremely valuable for planning and preparedness and for making decisions to build coastal resilience.

For example, if a hurricane alert is issued, users can input their city and state to see maps and imagery of potential impacts for a similar storm scenario. If a family is planning to move to a beach, they can type a location into the portal to view what types of coastal hazards and impacts have occurred nearby. The Coastal Vulnerability Index shows the relative susceptibility of the Nation’s coasts to sea-level rise. Resource managers can also make decisions on how best to protect precious ecosystems. These are just a few ways the portal may be used.

Video Tutorial

A short video posted on YouTube demonstrates how a resident in Rodanthe, North Carolina, can use the portal to answer the question: As a long-term resident in this coastal community on the Outer Banks, how much beach erosion is occurring in my community?

Technology Sets Sail—New “Mashup” Capabilities

A range of information is provided through the portal, such as historical data, existing publications, satellite imagery, maps, and more. This “mashup” of information is possible because of the wide scope of USGS expertise. For example, USGS scientists have completed a national research project that measures and interprets coastline change from the past 150-plus years. By looking to the past, scientists have direct evidence of how our diverse shorelines have behaved, allowing for more accurate analyses of future change. The USGS also investigates coastal change during extreme storms to help understand hazards such as severe beach erosion, island overwash (transport of sand inland by waves), or coastal inundation. The portal will enable users to view USGS science in conjunction with their own personalized data to answer specific questions.

Partnerships are Essential

The maintenance of an accurate and up-to-date portal relies on relationships with both federal agencies and non-governmental organizations. This cooperation includes, for example, the upcoming incorporation of coastal-change forecasts for approaching hurricanes using wave and surge input from the National Hurricane Center. Another partnership, with the National Weather Service, is helping to achieve real-time predictions of coastal change for all wave conditions.

Similar collaborations are also necessary to make sure the portal addresses the needs of information users. For example, refuge managers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to use this tool in combination with many of their own mapping products to develop an appropriate forecast for endangered species and resource management. Managers with the National Park Service can apply these data to evaluate how to reduce or prevent vulnerabilities at specific facilities or cultural resources due to exposure to coastal hazards.

The information provided through the portal also enables state agencies to improve their ability to monitor and assess their coastlines. “The ability to easily locate and access USGS research and data through the new Coastal Change Hazards Portal is of great value for coastal managers,” said Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management Director Bruce Carlisle. “This information directly supports our work with local cities and towns to assess risk and communicate current and future hazards.”

Sample image from the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal
Above: Sample image from the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal showing historical shoreline change at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. (Rodanthe, North Carolina, is on the same chain of barrier islands, off the image to the north; see small inset map.) Lines representing historical shorelines are color-coded by year. Visit the portal to view more details. [larger version]

Future Portal Plans and Enhancements

Coastlines are constantly changing landscapes that pose unique management challenges requiring fresh information. The USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal is designed to be continually updated with the most current catalogues of information and tools that can be used to evaluate risk and inform actions that lead to improved coastal resilience.

In the future, the portal will evolve into an even more advanced web tool to forecast shoreline variations and provide managers and planners with information they need to protect resources, reduce risk, and prevent economic losses. Future refinements will sharpen information to the highest resolution available and provide capabilities for real-time storm vulnerability assessments.

Start with Science

Informed management and policy decisions require expert science as their foundation.  The USGS is dedicated to addressing this need and providing unbiased coastal science. The USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal is an internal partnership between the Coastal and Marine Geology Program, which develops the data and understanding to forecast coastal change, and the Center for Integrated Data Analytics, which provides the advanced software development and delivery capabilities to ensure that USGS science is available as widely and effectively as possible.

Get Onboard and Explore

Visit the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal to investigate the coast and learn more about impending hazards.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Using Scenarios to Improve Resilience to Major Storms
Jan. / Feb. 2014
Predicting Hurricane-Induced Coastal Change—USGS Publications Will Help Community Planners, Emergency Managers
July / Aug. 2013
Remembering Asbury “Abby” Sallenger—Architect of the USGS Coastal Program
Jan. / Feb. 2013
"Hurricane" 3D Movie and TV Series to Feature USGS Coastal Change Hazards Scientists
Jan. / Feb. 2012
Past Decade of Extreme Storms Leaves Coasts Vulnerable
May / June 2010
Predicting Flooding and Coastal Hazards: USGS Hydrologists and Geologists Team Up at the National Hurricane Conference to Highlight Data Collection
June 2007

Related Websites
USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal
Coastal Vulnerability Index
YouTube Coastal Change Hazards Portal video tutorial
USGS Science Features: Top Story, July 16, 2014
What percentage of the American population lives near the coast?
National Hurricane Center
National Weather Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
National Park Service
Coastal and Marine Geology Program
Center for Integrated Data Analytics

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in this issue:

Spotlight on Sandy
USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal

New Tide Gage/Weather Station Near Mashpee, Massachusetts

Oceanographic Gear Retrieved from Offshore of Fire Island, New York

Coral Reefs Along West-Central Guam—Historical Impacts

Geologic Evidence of Past Tsunamis in California

USGS Helps Celebrate the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Public Lecture on Deep-Sea Corals Takes Audience “Into the Abyss”

USGS Gas Hydrates Project Hosts Japanese Colleagues

Use-Case Training for the Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Research Community

Spring 2014 Monterey Bay Marine GIS User Group Meeting

July / August Publications

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

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