USGS Installs Storm-Tide Sensors Along Gulf Coast for Hurricane Nate

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To learn more about USGS’ role providing science to decision makers before, during and after Hurricane Nate, visit the USGS Hurricane Nate page at https://www.usgs.gov/nate. 

Almost 60 storm-tide sensors have been deployed by U.S. Geological Survey hurricane response crews along the Gulf coast, from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle, in preparation for Hurricane Nate.

Under a mission assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 28 storm-tide sensors were installed in Louisiana, 10 in Florida, and about 20 are being installed in Alabama today, with the work expected to be complete this afternoon.   

These scientific instruments are installed ahead of Nate 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 Nate has passed sometime next week. To learn where the storm-tide sensors were deployed for Nate, visit the USGS Hurricane Nate Flood Event Viewer.

The USGS studies the impacts of hurricanes and tropical storms to better understand potential impacts on coastal areas. Information provided through the sensor networks provides critical data for more accurate modeling and prediction capabilities and allows for improved structure designs and response for public safety.

Many forms of technology are used to track and document the effects of hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Here is an in-depth look at the storm-tide sensors USGS scientists are using to document Nate’s coastal impacts.

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. Typically, these sensors are deployed along and inland of the coast about 50 miles left and 100 miles right of the projected path of hurricane landfall.

4. Why are you undertaking this work? The work will enable USGS to compile data so that specialists 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. The USGS generates 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, scientists 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. The USGS also maintains a network of streamgages that provide real-time information on water levels and flow rates on many rivers and streams across the country. This network can be augmented by rapid deployed gauges that are installed at sites that do not currently have permanent streamgages.  

8. What other kinds of data are needed? There are several kinds of data that would complement this work and for which the USGS seeks 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? USGS 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? More information on Hurricane Nate can be found here https://www.usgs.gov/nate Reports on previous USGS storm surge documentation efforts as well as additional information about storm-tide sensors is available here.