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A new study from researchers at the University of Central Florida, USGS, the University of Melbourne, and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) assesses the uncertainty of models used across the globe to estimate the height of coastal storm waves, which at present can vary by several feet and may underestimate flood risk to communities and infrastructure.

Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding. By the end of the century, hundreds of millions of people around the world will be affected by coastal flooding, with economic damages estimated to exceed 14 billion U.S. dollars. Thus, understanding the risks posed to communities and infrastructure from coastal flooding is imperative to reduce risk and loss of property and life. 

In this study, researchers found that to accurately characterize flood risk, offshore and coastal risk assessments based on global climate change and sea-level rise must also account for differences between global wave models, which can differ by up to 5 meters (16.4 feet). The research also indicates that the uncertainties in contemporary extreme events can often exceed projected 21st-century changes in extreme wave height due to climate change. This suggests that “bad-weather” events, much like those currently being experienced across California, will continue to play a critical role in coastal hazard impacts. 

“Joao Morim [the study’s lead author] was a visiting scientist at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in the summer/fall of 2019, and we instantly became friends over our shared interest of oceanography and surfing,” said Research Oceanographer Sean Vitousek, a co-author of the study. “Joao has established himself as an expert in projections of extreme wave conditions, and now, under the supervision of Thomas Wahl, is applying his expertise to projections of extreme sea-level conditions. For this current research, I helped to advise Joao in aspects of extreme-value theory as well as quantification of compounding sources uncertainty. We had a tremendous team of scientists that contributed to this study, but Joao's expertise and individual efforts really allowed it to come to fruition.”

Read the related press release from the University of Central Florida.

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