Research Themes Overview

USGS uses a unique geospatial approach to help identify vulnerable coastal areas, track coastal ecosystem-scale responses, and forecast potential impacts to future changes. Across five major themes, we have improved monitoring networks, generated maps, data and models needed to integrate our information and put extreme storms into the greater context of climate change, sea-level rise and coastal vulnerability. USGS scientists are working to assess forecast effectiveness, improve how we share information, and identify gaps to improve the information and tools we provide. The research themes include:

LIDAR Topography of the elevation difference between Pelican Island and Fire Island, New York.

Coastal Elevation Data and Mapping

Accurate elevation data is fundamental for assessing storm-related impacts and understanding coastal change and vulnerability. The USGS is establishing a Coastal National Elevation Database, known also as CoNED, for the Hurricane Sandy region. An important part of CoNED are topographic surveys (using lidar) that are used to assess impacted areas and inform reconstruction. In addition, USGS is developing data delivery systems that make topographic (land-based elevation), bathymetric (seafloor-surface maps) and associated hazard information available to partners and stakeholders. View Fact Sheet

Oblique aerial photograph of Seaside Heights, New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy, impacts shows coastal change on a developed coastline.

Understanding Coastal Change

Understanding changes to our coastlines over both short and long periods of time is essential for coastal community resilience and planning. By comparing pre- and post-storm conditions, scientists can look at how storm events impact coastal beaches, barrier islands and associated estuaries in the greater context of understanding how our coastal areas are evolving over the long-term. Through quantitative analysis and mapping, scientists model and forecast impacts in specific coastal areas and can assess vulnerability to future storms. These capabilities allow scientists to develop greater understanding of how estuaries and the greater barrier island landscape evolves in response to storm events. USGS scientists develop and refine coastal-impact forecasting models as tools for communities and resource planners to use in developing long-term coastal planning scenarios and protect, restore and manage, resilient coastal communities and healthy wetlands and estuaries. View Fact Sheet

USGS hydrologic technician surveying a high-water mark on LIberty Island, New York, following Hurricane Sandy.

Coastal Hydrology and Storm Surge

Storm-surge is one of the most powerful and destructive elements of major storm events. Excessively high tides associated with storms can flood and inundate coastal areas, often moving sediment and alteringcoastal landscapes and drainages. USGS provides critical expertise in measuring storm surge and assessingconditions both before and after the storm. Through development of storm tide monitoring networks, data analysis, and data delivery, USGS provides vital information to help coastal communities prepare for and recover from storm surge events. View Fact Sheet

Cars and debris in a flooded low area in New York City (photo courtesy of European Pressphoto Agency). Background photo shows control measures being taken in the Arthur Kill between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey, in response to an oil release caused by Hurricane Sandy

Environmental Quality and Contaminants

Floodwaters and inundation in urban environments have the potential to introduce and expose coastal and aquatic environments to chemical and microbial contaminants. Potential contaminant sources include debris, combined sewer overflows and inundated infrastructure such as gas station, landfills, chemical storage facilities, hazardous waste sites and saltwater intrusion. USGS scientists measure, monitor and characterize the persisting risk of exposure to both human and ecological systems in the built environment as well as in natural areas. Research includes characterizing these storm-released contaminants and water-quality changes as well as understanding how these contaminants accumulate in sediments or what conditions cause them to persist, move and further impact ecosystem health.View Fact Sheet

Photos looking west across Smith Island, Virginia after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Hurricane Sandy’s winds, high tide, and storm surge carried sand from beaches and dunes far inland to cover coastal dune vegetation and wetlands. Salt water was also pushed inland by the storm.

Coastal Ecosystem Impacts

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) manages public lands affected by Hurricane Sandy, including approximately 30 National Wildlife Refuges and 6 National Parks and National Seashores along the coast of the northeastern United States that provide critical habitat for migratory waterfowl and threatened or endangered species. These coastal barriers protect wetlands and coastal communities and provide recreational opportunities for millions of visitors, including those from nearby metropolitan areas from Boston to Washington, D.C.

The USGS provides decision makers with the science needed to support the assessment, recovery, and resilience of the Nation’s natural resources. Managers of DOI lands have trust responsibilities under the Federal Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as additional cooperative responsibilities with State and local authorities for the protection of native, commercial, and recreationally harvested fish and wildlife species. Studies conducted by the USGS and its partners provide essential baseline data and long-term support for coastal-zone planning, conservation planning, resource management, hazard reduction, and risk mitigation in the wake of past and future natural disasters. View Fact Sheet