WCU contingent works on storm surge project

Coastal storm surges – the rise of water above sea level caused by high winds – are responsible for the greatest amount of casualties and property loss from hurricanes, and Western Carolina University faculty, staff and students are collaborating on a website and mobile app to record and help predict storm surge severity.

One feature shows the path of Hurricane Fran.

One feature shows the path of Hurricane Fran.

The project began when Rob Young, professor of geosciences and director of WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, was considering the aftermath of 2005’s disastrous Hurricane Katrina and how to better predict and contact the public about storm surges.

“It’s hard to believe that nobody was compiling all the relevant data in one place,” Young said. Information about storms, especially meteorological/weather data and post-storm flooding, was being collected by agencies within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and many other sources, but there was no central collecting point. Young and his students set about building one, a relational database to be hosted eventually by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville.

One of those students was Katie McDowell Peek, who went on to complete graduate studies and return to PSDS as a research scientist. “Katie’s done an incredible job in creating the database from a complicated dataset,” Young said. Storm landfall information was imported from NOAA’s database; water-level data was collected from more than 30 sources, including universities, consultants and federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States Geological Survey and NOAA. Then PSDS calculated and added more from that information: storm track straightness or curvature, as well as speed and angle of impact on the shoreline. Records as far back as 1928 yield information about 4,900 high-water marks associated with 40 hurricanes, “from Maine all the way down to Texas,” Peek said.

The challenge then became making the raw data of the National Storm Surge Database more useful, not only to scientists, but to the general public as well.

“After Hurricane Katrina, we began to realize there was a need to improve how we predict and contact the public about storm surges,” Peek said. “Our challenge was to reach the average person; get the information out to the public in the best way.”

Watermarks are displayed by elevation.

Watermarks are displayed by elevation.

The answer was an interactive website using Google Maps to display high-water marks, pinpoint storm landfalls and plot their tracks to shore. The site, called the Storm Surge Viewer, was built by mathematics and computer science students Russell Gaskey, Cristina Korb, Brian Lenau, Brad Proctor, recent graduate Chris Blades and professor Mark Holliday in cooperation with WCU’s IT department and CIO Craig Fowler. Still in beta-testing, the site will continue to grow in time as more data – including information from the recent Hurricane Isaac – are added to the database.

“It’s been fun to work with the people in mathematics and computer science on this,” Young said. “They’ve helped us reach two audiences – one technical, and one not – and that was a big part of our mission for the project.”

Viewers can search for a particular hurricane or storm by name or by location (using zip codes, city and state names or map coordinates) and area radius, then select surge/high-water marks and/or path. Selecting the high-water marks displays a series of clickable dots on a map of the relevant area, some displaying photos as well as high-water mark information. Selecting the path (or paths, if several hurricanes are selected) will show the arc of travel. Dots and paths are color-coded to the storm(s) chosen.

“Our hope was that the website would make it easier for coastal residents, emergency planners and land developers to have that information,” Peek said. She has presented the capabilities of the database and website recently at several conferences: Coastal Zone 2011 in Chicago, the 2011 southeastern and national meetings of the Geological Society of America in Wilmington, N.C., and Minneapolis respectively, and the July “State of the Coast” conference of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana. At the conference in New Orleans, she made contacts with even more sources of information for the database. Conferees from Louisiana also voiced a concern about the geographical data. “All of it was expressed in terms of counties,” Peek said. “In Louisiana, those areas are known as ‘parishes.’” The concern was easy to address by adding a slash and the word “parishes” to the database.

Another feature shares storm surge information based on specific location.

Another feature shares storm surge information based on specific location.

To make storm surge information even more accessible, a team from the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science is working on a mobile phone application for the Android operating system. Faculty members Andrew Dalton and William Kreahling, students Jordan Chapman and Benjamin Miller are cooperating on this project.

Future opportunities for increasing the usefulness of the database include quantifying the shape of the coastline (geomorphology) and the slope/geometry of the coastal shelf (bathymetry), and assessing the geographical direction of approach as well as the angle. “We want to be able to use the best, most complete data to predict storm surges,” Peek said.

“I’d like to team up with modelers of storm processes to address open questions like why a big storm sometimes produces a small surge, and vice-versa,” Young adds. “In the past, weather forecasters would simply estimate storm surge based on the category of the storm. We’ve found no direct correlation from that by itself.”

They are looking forward to making the Storm Surge Viewer more widely known very soon through publication of an article about it in the peer-reviewed Journal of Coastal Research.

For more information, contact Young at 828-227-3822 or ryoung@wcu.edu or Peek at 828-227-2790 or kmcdowell@wcu.edu.