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October 5, 2020

USGS Introduces a National Approach to Coastal Change Hazards (CCH) Science

The U.S. Geological Survey has launched a new Coastal Change Hazards website focused on coordinating research and delivering tools needed by coastal communities to respond to natural hazards along our Nation's coastlines.

The USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal shows a screenshot of Hurricane Sally approaching the northern U.S. Gulf Coast
As Hurricane Sally approached the US Gulf Coast, the USGS Coastal Change Hazards team produced a series of forecasts for impacts on the beach. Forecasts were updated daily based on wave and storm surge forecasts from NOAA.

Our Nation’s coasts vary greatly, from relaxing sandy beaches and barrier islands, ecologically productive marshes, magnificent rocky coasts and cliffs, to tropical islands fringed by coral reefs and permafrost coasts where ice holds the sediments together. Each coastline is unique and faces different elements of coastal change.

Equally importantly, with more than 40% of the United States population inhabiting coastal counties, we must use the best available information and tools to reduce societal risk, protect natural resources, develop and plan for smart infrastructure and provide science for a changing landscape.


USGS’s Coastal Change Hazards (CCH) brings together expertise, technology and communities to help understand and reduce risks associated with coastal change. Doing so will ensure that USGS high-quality coastal science and tools are directly addressing the needs of coastal communities around the Nation, protecting the lives, property and economic prosperity.

talking on beach
USGS scientists discuss coastal change with uniformed NPS resource managers on a barrier island beach.

It is About Much More Than Hurricanes

When hurricane season is in full swing, coastal change becomes a particularly important topic of conversation for emergency managers, first responders, coastal property owners and infrastructure- and resource managers and planners.

However, extreme storms are not the only cause of coastal change. Coasts are dynamic places and changes to these environments are ongoing and inevitable – from waves impacts to cliffs, to centuries of sediment transport and runoff, to ever-present forces of wind and waves continually shaping coastal areas over millennia. USGS science helps identify the hazards and forecast changes in order to help reduce risk and inform planning and decision-making.

“The USGS Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program supports scientists who are working strategically to harness new technology and integrate science from different disciplines and partners so that we can provide information, tools and forecasts that help describe hazards and risks to human infrastructure and natural systems,” says the program’s coordinator John Haines. “By bringing these capabilities together, we can better help decision makers weigh options on how best to protect lives, property and the value our coasts provide.”

“The USGS has been studying coastal processes and change for a very long time, but now we are taking a nationally consistent approach to connect that research with societal needs,” says Hilary Stockdon, Research Oceanographer and lead Science Advisor for CCH. “CCH is working to ensure that USGS tools and products – from historical trends in coastline change to forecasts of impacts from extreme storms and changes in coastal habitat – are available everywhere. By coordinating expertise and capabilities within the Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resource Program and across other USGS programs, we can both advance our fundamental understanding of coastal hazards and deliver useful science to the communities that need it.”

USGS monitoring of shorelines before, during and after storms informs emergency managers on evacuation mandates and storm recovery planning, which can help to alleviate risk and loss from storms. One of the many successful tools created by CCH is the Total Water Level and Coastal Change Forecast viewer, developed and provided in close collaboration with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which provides hourly predictions of high water levels at the shoreline, giving  users much-needed advance notice of the potential for local flooding and coastal erosion hazards on sandy coastlines around the U.S.

Erosion along Alaska’s Arctic coastline near the village of Kaktovik
Neal Pastick – lead author of the study – investigating erosion along Alaska’s Arctic coastline near the village of Kaktovik. Permafrost-dominated coasts of Alaska have drastically changed as the result of coastal transgression and storm-surge flooding which can result in the loss of cultural sites and damage to infrastructure.  Photo by M. Torre Jorgenson

Coastal Change Hazards within a 21st Century Vision

The USGS has a long history of advancing Earth science and identifying opportunities to integrate across disciplines to address complex societal problems.

“Coastal change hazards science is a prime example of this legacy. The CCH works to bring together research, applications and communications to effectively deliver useful information and tools directly to those who need it to help minimize natural hazard risks along our Nation’s coastlines,” said David Applegate, Associate Director for the USGS Natural Hazards Mission Area. The USGS works with other federal agencies, such as NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to advance our Nation’s hazard science and deliver information. “These collaborations are beneficial for advancing both research and public safety. For example, by integrating the USGS CCH coastal change models with NOAA’s wave and surge forecasts, we are able to provide emergency managers and coastal communities with more robust information to prepare for advancing storms.” 


Photo of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restoration work on coastline of St. Augustine, Florida
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restores the coastline of St. Augustine Beach, Florida, for protection and recreational use. The sand for the project comes from the seabed offshore of northeast Florida. Fifty-nine percent of Florida's beaches are experiencing erosion.

One key aspect of CCH is to work directly with stakeholders to ensure that science products are usable so communities can prepare for coastal hazards and reduce associated risks.


Explore Coastal Hazards through Interactive Stories

CCH has developed a series of educational, interactive webpages (geonarratives) that take you on a journey across our Nation’s coastlines to learn about coastal change in various environments, become familiar with the hazards posed by these changes and understand how USGS science and tools can help coastal communities mitigate these risks and prepare for future change. You can explore how barrier islands and shorelines move over time or how we forecast coastal change, learn how coral reefs make a difference in coastal protection, interact with our tools for visualizing coastal storm impacts on the California coast, or examine how permafrost and seasonal ice makes coastal change in Alaska unique. You can explore it all online in geonarrative format.

Coastal change is inevitable, but coastal management decisions that are guided by USGS CCH science and tools can help our society reduce risk and losses. Through the focused efforts on coastal change hazards and growing connections to other areas of USGS expertise and capabilities, we are fulfilling the vision of a Nation that prospers by using scientific knowledge to prepare for, mitigate, and respond to threats posed by our dynamic coasts.

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