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Best practices for elevation-based assessments of sea-level rise and coastal flooding exposure

December 12, 2018

Elevation data are critical for assessments of sea-level rise (SLR) and coastal flooding exposure. Previous research has demonstrated that the quality of data used in elevation-based assessments must be well understood and applied to properly model potential impacts. The cumulative vertical uncertainty of the input elevation data substantially controls the minimum increments of SLR and the minimum planning horizons that can be effectively used in assessments. For regional, continental, or global assessments, several digital elevation models (DEMs) are available for the required topographic information to project potential impacts of increased coastal water levels, whether a simple inundation model is used or a more complex process-based or probabilistic model is employed. When properly characterized, the vertical accuracy of the DEM can be used to report assessment results with the uncertainty stated in terms of a specific confidence level or likelihood category. An accuracy evaluation has been conducted of global DEMs to quantify their inherent vertical uncertainty to demonstrate how accuracy information should be considered when planning and implementing a SLR or coastal flooding assessment. The evaluation approach includes comparison of the DEMs with high-accuracy geodetic control points as the independent reference data over a variety of coastal relief settings. The global DEMs evaluated include SRTM, ASTER GDEM, ALOS World 3D, TanDEM-X, NASADEM, and MERIT. High-resolution, high-accuracy DEM sources, such as airborne lidar and stereo imagery, are also included to give context to the results from the global DEMs. The accuracy characterization results show that current global DEMs are not adequate for high confidence mapping of exposure to fine increments (<1 m) of SLR or with shorter planning horizons (<100 years) and thus they should not be used for such mapping, but they are suitable for general delineation of low elevation coastal zones. In addition to the best practice of rigorous accounting for vertical uncertainty, other recommended procedures are presented for delineation of different types of impact areas (marine and groundwater inundation) and use of regional relative SLR scenarios. The requirement remains for a freely available, high-accuracy, high-resolution global elevation model that supports quantitative SLR and coastal inundation assessments at high confidence levels.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title Best practices for elevation-based assessments of sea-level rise and coastal flooding exposure
DOI 10.3389/feart.2018.00230
Authors Dean B. Gesch
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Earth Science
Series Number
Index ID 70201410
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center