Big data, big storms: New tide sensors provide opportunity

Big data, big storms: New tide sensors provide opportunity

We can’t let our guard down for hurricanes, even as the weather starts to cool. A little more than a month remains in hurricane season, but one of the strongest storms ever to hit Southwest Florida made landfall 13 years ago this week.


Hurricane Wilma swept through as a Category 3 in 2005, bringing effects similar to what we saw during Hurricane Irma last year: widespread power outages that lasted days, if not weeks, downed trees and power lines, and structures that were damaged and destroyed. And, of course, flooding due to storm surge and storm tides.


Storm surge is a measure of the abnormal rise of water over and above the tide. Storm tide is a measure of the surge plus the tide. Southwest Florida has been relatively lucky with storm surge and storm tides over the years, and particularly during Irma, when the water didn’t go nearly as high as initially predicted. But when our luck inevitably runs out, our region faces a serious danger. Heavy storm tides can wipe out roads and bridges as well as water and sewer systems, and they can also bring profound change to coastal landscapes, which poses a massive threat to waterfront construction.


Just how massive that threat is, and the steps we need to take to deal with it, are answers that data analysis can help us determine. Fortunately, we just took a major step forward in the hunt for storm tide information.


As Hurricane Florence lurched toward the Carolinas, U.S. Geological Survey crews installed roughly 160 new storm tide sensors up and down the coast and at key inland sites along rivers. They placed them in vented steel pipes about a few inches wide and around a foot long and installed those pipes in strategic locations.


The sensors provide live data on how high the water has risen, helping first responders handle the crisis in the moment. The data also has near-term use for public officials trying to assess whether it’s safe for evacuees to return and determine the routes they should avoid. Going forward, the information will also help us understand storm damage, differentiate between wind and flood damage, and improve flood forecasts.


In turn, that will help engineers and public officials deliver building codes, stormwater management systems and coastal mitigation plans that make communities better equipped to handle severe storm tides.


The storm tide data, along with other information collected from Hurricane Florence, is available here on the Geological Survey site. Hurricanes and other catastrophic weather events aren’t going to stop, and neither is our quest to make the toll they inflict less painful.

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