Hurricane Sandy Response - Barrier Island and Estuarine Wetland Physical Change Assessment

Science Center Objects

A quantitative understanding of long- and short-term physical changes along wetland coastlines is required to support assessments of ecological and societal vulnerabilities to environmental change. The Barrier Island and Estuarine Wetland Physical Change Assessment project will integrate a wetland assessment with existing coastal-change hazard assessments for the adjacent dunes and beaches, and will focus, initially, on Assateague Island, Maryland, to create a more comprehensive coastal vulnerability assessment.

The Nation's coast is fringed by beaches, dunes, barrier islands, wetlands, and bluffs. These natural coastal barriers provide critical benefits and services, and can mitigate the impact of storms, erosion, and sea-level rise on our coastal communities. In late October 2012, waves and storm surge resulting from Hurricane Sandy affected the U.S. coastline from North Carolina to New York and Massachusetts, including Assateague Island, Maryland, and the Delmarva coastal system. The storm impacts included changes in topography, coastal morphology and geology, hydrology, environmental quality, and ecosystems (Buxton and others).

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, lidar surveys from North Carolina to New York documented storm impacts to coastal barriers, providing a baseline to assess vulnerability of the reconfigured coast. However, a thorough investigation of the topography and geology of the affected coastal systems is essential to provide a complete picture of the post-storm barrier landscape that will help us to understand the potential vulnerability to future storms and also to inform decisions on recovery and rebuilding.

The U.S. Geological Survey is engaged in a variety of research activities that aim to understand coastal processes and vulnerability of barrier island wetland coastlines. The Barrier Island Wetlands Physical Change project will conduct research tasks that will be completed in 2014-2015 include the following:

  • Identifying and measuring estuarine shoreline changes resulting from Hurricane Sandy along Assateague Island using remotely sensed data;
  • Sampling and analyzing sediment cores to understand long-term geologic processes and provide ground-truth measurements for the remote sensing analysis;
  • Assessing the likelihood of wetland change resulting from future storm events and linking this assessment to the beaches and dunes vulnerability assessment that has already been developed.

The results of this study will provide baseline scientific information regarding the natural resiliency of the coastal system that will inform Federal and other resource managers as they make decisions regarding restoration and resource management projects. In addition, project results will provide coastal planners and managers with similar information for addressing infrastructure concerns along developed coastline.


Hurricane Sandy Wetland Physical Change
Historical and recent maps and other imagery will be used to document changes to the extent and character of wetland areas associated with Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy Depositional Record
Sediment cores will be collected and analyzed to provide quantify Hurricane Sandy-related deposition or erosion and place this event in the context of historical wetland changes.

Hurricane Sandy Wetland Physical Change Assessment
Data collected for this project will be combined with physical process understanding to developed an assessment that quantifies wetland vulnerability erosion and burial due to storms and longer-term processes.

Two aerial photographs of the Virginia barrier island coastline, before/after Hurricane Sandy.
Overwash along the Virginia barrier island coastline changed the estuarine shoreline and buried wetland marshes and channels. (Yellow arrow marks a common reference feature in each photo.)