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September 19, 2017

To learn more about USGS’ role providing science to decision makers before, during and after Hurricane Jose, visit the USGS Hurricane Jose page at

U.S. Geological Survey specialists across three states installed 17 storm-tide sensors – seven in Connecticut, seven in Massachusetts and three in Rhode Island – along shorelines likely to receive some large waves and storm surge from Hurricane Jose.

These scientific instruments were put in place ahead of Jose to collect information about the hurricane’s effects on the coast. The retrieval of the sensors and the valuable data they hold will begin once Jose has passed. To learn where the storm-tide sensors were deployed for Jose, visit the USGS Hurricane Jose Flood Event Viewer.

The U.S. Geological Survey use many forms of technology to track and document the effects of hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Here is an in-depth look at one of the tools USGS scientists are using to track Jose’s coastal impacts, the storm-tide sensor.

This is an example of a USGS storm-tide sensor
This is an example of a USGS storm-tide sensor. USGS photo. (Public domain.)

1. What does a storm-tide sensor look like? It is a 1-1/2” aluminum or steel pipe strapped or bolted to a piling or other stable structure. The top will have a metal or PVC cap and the bottom will be open for the water to enter. The sensor housing protects a water-level pressure sensor inside. A unique USGS ID sticker will be on the outside. The sticker may be yellow or aluminum in color. If you find a sensor and have questions about it, please call the phone number on the sticker.

2. What type of data do the sensors collect? Water-level and barometric pressure are recorded every 30 seconds for most sites. Sensors located on beaches record wave height every 2 seconds. The recording period lasts for 1 to 3 days depending on the magnitude of the storm and post-storm access to the sensor sites.

3. What is a storm-tide sensor deployment? The USGS has developed a mobile network of rapidly deployable instruments with which to observe and document hurricane-induced storm-surge as they make landfall and interact with coastal features. From Maine to North Carolina, the USGS Surge, Wave, and Tide Hydrodynamics Networks, also called SWaTH, is a system of hundreds of pre-positioned, pre-surveyed brackets where storm-tide sensors can quickly be installed. With the SWaTH network, the USGS is able to improve its response time when monitoring coastal-storm tide and riverine flooding related to hurricanes and nor’easters. More information about the SWATH network can be found in this recently published report.

4. Why are you undertaking this work? The work will enable USGS to compile data so that we can quantify storm-tide dynamics (wave heights, forces, speeds, and extent) for various storm conditions, topographies, ecologies, built environments, and land uses. This information will lead to better storm-tide models and more accurate flood forecasts, while informing decisions on designs of flood-protection infrastructure and future land use policies.

5. What is the nature of the work? Storm-tide sensors (non-vented pressure transducers) are strapped to bridge piers, power and light poles, and other structures along the coast. Depending on the size of a storm and the potentially affected area, the effort can involve dozens of two-person teams deploying hundreds instruments 24 to 48 hours prior to a hurricane’s landfall.

6. What are you going to do with the data? Data are uploaded to the web as as a series of water level and water pressure measurements taken over time stage and pressure time series. We generate various graphics to create 3-D water-surface images, and depth and duration maps. Together they enable us to study surge flooding, including wave height, and moment by moment, visualize its interaction with the coastal features such as beaches, islands, estuaries, and streams. By tying these data together and with local topography, we can determine the rates at which flood waters transverse various water bodies and landforms, the major paths of penetration, their duration, and the height and frequency of waves that strike dunes and built infrastructure.

Data of this nature is quite rare and very valuable for determination of flood insurance maps, building codes, and for calibration of the hurricane inundation models. Accurate model forecasts are critical for community preparation of storm response and evacuation plans.

7. Are the surge data reported in real-time? The surge data are not reported in real time but are logged on-site. They are processed and calibrated for barometric pressure, water density, and elevation data, and are then made available to the public. Real-time information is available from rapid deployed gauges that are installed at sites where we do not currently have permanent gauges. These rapid deployed gauges will augment a network of existing U.S. Geological Survey gauging stations already in place before the storm arrives.

8. What other kinds of data are needed? There are several kinds of data that would complement this work and for which we seek collaborators. These include offshore water-level and wave-height data, wind speed and direction, inland water salinity, post-storm ecological assessments, and geological evaluations of beach and landform behavior, and engineering evaluations.

9. Who uses this information? Our data is used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, and National Hurricane Center and the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, as well as state responders and emergency management officials.

10. Where can I learn more? Recent efforts by the USGS to deploy these storm-tide sensors in response to Hurricane Maria can be read here. Reports on previous USGS storm surge documentation efforts as well as additional information about storm-tide sensors is available here.

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