USGS has science that weathers the storm

May 29, 2007
In recognition of National Hurricane Preparedness Week, the USGS has initiated specific actions to prepare for the impending hurricane season that runs June through October. Improved monitoring of conditions on the ground from flooding and storm surge, enhanced ability to navigate in a disaster zone, and better assessments of the effect on coastlines and ecology are among the benefits anticipated from these actions...

RESTON, VA, May 24, 2007 -- In recognition of National Hurricane Preparedness Week, the USGS has initiated specific actions to prepare for the impending hurricane season that runs June through October. Improved monitoring of conditions on the ground from flooding and storm surge, enhanced ability to navigate in a disaster zone, and better assessments of the effect on coastlines and ecology are among the benefits anticipated from these actions.

Enhanced Monitoring of Floods and Storm Surge
Four major actions are underway to prepare for monitoring floods arising from hurricanes and other tropical storms. USGS activities include 1) strengthening stream gages along the Gulf Coast; 2) implementing rapidly deployable, mobile gages on streams; 3) developing capabilities to measure hurricane-driven storm surges; and 4) installing an emergency satellite-communications and data-distribution system. These activities are coordinated with the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other Federal, State, and local organizations.

"These coordinated actions will ensure timely and uninterrupted water information for forecasters, emergency managers, scientists and the general public," says Robert Hirsch, USGS Associate Director for Water. "Improved flood monitoring and assessment will help reduce the risks to coastal communities, property, and human life."

In 2005, many USGS stream gages along and inland of the Gulf of Mexico were damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The damage resulted in interruptions of streamflow and water-level data needed during the storm by forecasters, emergency managers, and dam and levee operators. The USGS is currently strengthening or "hardening"120 gages along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. A map of these locations is found at: Additionally, 8 to 10 open-water tidal/water-quality gages are being hardened in Mississippi and Louisiana.

The USGS has an extensive nation-wide network of more than 7,400 streamgages but it does not cover every stream in the country. Streamgage data is critical for emergency managers during storms, therefore, the USGS has developed new, rapidly deployable, mobile streamgages to provide short term, water-level data in unmonitored areas where flooding is anticipated. These mobile gages also serve as emergency replacements for damaged or destroyed gages.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita vividly demonstrated that storm surge can be as dangerous as riverine floods. In order to have information about the timing, extent, and magnitude of hurricane-driven surge waters and waves, the USGS has designed and developed a network of rugged, inexpensive water-level and barometric-pressure sensors, called storm-surge sensors. They can be installed quickly in anticipation of a storm. This information will be used to calibrate the storm-surge models used by forecasters along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts and will help them provide improved forecasts of what lands will be inundated and to what depth in future hurricanes.

Currently, USGS water data are relayed almost hourly from streamgages to a single command-and-data acquisition station at Wallops Island, Va. Since this stat ion is located near the coast, it is vulnerable to hurricanes and other storms. Therefore, to ensure the continuity of continuous critical data in real time, the USGS and its partners are establishing an emergency satellite data acquisition and dissemination capability at the USGS EROS Data Center, located in Sioux Falls, S.D. This unit is expected to be operational by the end of 2007.

Expanded Participation in Satellite Charter
USGS has worked with commercial satellite imagery firms to expand the global team of government and commercial space and satellite agencies that constitute the International Charter, "Space and Major Disasters." This agreement provides emergency response satellite data free of charge to those affected by disasters anywhere in the world. The Charter has been activated about 125 times since its inception in November 2000, including here in the U.S. for Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Geospatial Information
When Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans under water, conventional road maps became almost useless tools to locate those in distress. "Geoaddressing," using GPS, satellite, and other remotely obtained geospatial information, proved crucial for search and rescue operations. The USGS has established a Geospatial Information Response Team (GIRT) whose purpose is to ensure streamlined and responsive coordination and timely availability of geospatial information for effective Gulf and East coast storm response for emergency responders, land and resource managers, and scientific analysis. The GIRT is responsible for putting in place and monitoring procedures for geospatial data acquisition, processing, and archiving; data discovery, access, and delivery; anticipating geospatial needs; and other related geospatial products and services. During national emergencies, the USGS Geospatial Information Response Team provides post-event airborne imagery within 24 hours upon request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Science Response Vehicle
The USGS in Lafayette, La. has a new science response vehicle which can be immediately deployed to hurricane sites along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts. Equipped with state-of-the-art satellite computer systems it will provide critical communications when other sources fail. The vehicle serves as a mobile laboratory, facilitating collection and processing field samples including water quality testing on site; receives weather and emergency information. It also provides "geoaddressing" of 911 calls and critical infrastructure, such as levee breaks, bridges, pumping stations. The vehicle provides living quarters for a small team of scientists and response personnel for about a week. It has recently been tested during a mock hurricane drill in May.

Coastal Laser Mapping
The 2004-2005 hurricane seasons resulted in considerable loss of sand from barrier islands along significant parts of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida east coasts, making these areas even more vulnerable to storm surge and waves during the upcoming 2007 hurricane season. In the coming months, USGS and partners at NASA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will continue to assess extreme erosion and sand loss using airborne laser mapping before and after all major hurricanes that make landfall in the southeast U.S. The data are made readily available for emergency planning and disaster response and recovery.

Ecological Monitoring and Wetlands Loss
USGS is developing a special website and databases of biological and other data along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that can be accessed immediately for scientific response. This includes more than 70 years of wetland change data. After the hurricanes of 2005, USGS analysis showed an immediate loss of 217 square miles of coastal lands These findings are updated each growing season to evaluate coastal recovery from hurricanes and the persistence of coastal wetlands to global climate change and relative sea-level rise.

Hurricane Research
Scientific research at the USGS related to hurricanes includes: 1) radar-tracking of migratory birds during the fall migration period to assess possible effects of hurricanes on migration patterns; 2) studying global climate change and effects of sea-level rise on coastal wetlands and forests; 3) predicting the persistence of coastal wetlands to global climate change effects, including effects of altered temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide; 4) biogenic accretion through surface-root production in coastal wetlands and implications for elevation change relative to sea-level rise; 5) tracking and visualization of coastal restoration projects; 6) hurricane modeling including models of spread of invasive species via hurricane-force winds.

USGS provides science for a changing world. For more information, visit


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