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Making Waves: Episode 27 (May 27, 2009)

(INTRO)
… It’s the end of May, and for NOAA that means the hurricane season is about to begin. Most people know that NOAA’s National Weather Service plays a central role when hurricanes threaten our coasts…but what role does the National Ocean Service play? You might be surprised…

It's Wednesday, May 27th, 2009, and that’s coming up on this episode of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(HURRICANE SEASON)
We’ll start off today with a synopsis of this season’s hurricane predictions for the Pacific and the Atlantic that NOAA issued last week.

For the Atlantic, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center says that global weather patterns are imposing a greater uncertainty in the 2009 hurricane season than in recent years. Forecasters predict a fifty percent probability of a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season for the period between June and November. What about the other fifty percent? Well, there’s a 25 percent probability of an above-normal season, and a 25 percent probability of a below-normal season. And there’s a 70 percent chance of having between nine and 14 named storms, of which four to seven could become hurricanes … and of those, one to three could become big Category 3,4, or 5 hurricanes.

For the Pacific, NOAA’s Central Pacific Hurricane Center says that projected climate predictions point to an 80 percent chance of a near to below normal season in the Central Pacific Basin…and a 20 percent chance of an above-normal season. An average season has four to five tropical cyclones, which includes tropical cyclones, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Climate patterns similar to those predicted this year have historically produced a wide range of activity, and allowing for these uncertainties, three to five tropical cyclones are expected in the central Pacific during the 2009 season.

So that’s the big picture outlook for the year. It’s important to note that these predictions don’t project where and when any future storm may hit – and regardless of what the forecasts predict, the main thing to keep in mind is that if you live in an area where hurricanes happen, it’s time to start thinking about preparation and preparedness. There’s a lot more to these seasonal outlooks…I’ve only touched on the highlights, so surf over to www.NOAA.gov to get the full picture.

(NOS ROLE: HURRICANE SEASON)
The 2009 hurricane season outlook is a good time to talk about the National Ocean Service’s part in all of this. A lot of people don’t know this, but the NOS plays a major role in hurricane response before hurricanes hit the coast, when they hit, and long after the storms pass. Now, I’m going to be giving you a bunch of different web addresses in this report, but don’t worry about writing the URLs down. You can get all the links on our website at oceanservice.noaa.gov. So let’s begin.

One critical service the NOS provides is near real-time ocean and weather observations at locations affected by tropical storms from the National Water Level Observation Network. This network is made up over 200 stations around the country that continuously monitor water levels. And I want to highlight one component of this network particularly relevant to the discussion about hurricanes. Last year, NOS completed constructing four "Sentinels of the Coast." These hardened structures are positioned out in the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico to collect and send out real-time water level and weather observations – and they are made tough. They’re designed to withstand wind and wave action from category four hurricanes so they can keep gathering water and weather data even in the harshest conditions. Why is this important? Well, as we all know, during coastal storms, water levels can rise to flood levels. So it’s of course good to know and predict how high these water levels are going to get. This kind of storm-surge information is critical for emergency preparedness. Louisiana, for example, depends on this information because the state is highly susceptible to many natural hazards like hurricanes and storm-surge flooding. Well, the St. Charles Parish Water Level Monitoring System, a NOAA observing system partner in the Gulf region, provides near real-time water data to decision makers in the parish's Emergency Operations Center during storms. Emergency managers use this to get a clearer picture of storm-surge flooding areas, and that’s key in decision-making regarding evacuation routes, opening and closing of locks and dams, and when to make public warnings.

And if you’re wondering if you can see the data collected from the National Water Level Observation Network, yes you can. It’s all at tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov. And while you’re there, you may want to check out an important product created from the data collected by the network … it’s called the Storm QuickLook. And as the name suggests, when a tropical storm forms, the QuickLook provides a real-time view of a storm’s impacts on coastal storm water levels, winds, and barometric levels. It’s mostly used as decision support tool by Federal, State and local emergency managers to assist evacuation and road closing decisions, but you too can see the data to monitor and prepare for storm conditions. QuickLook reports start coming out after the National Hurricane Center identifies a tropical system. The first of the reports arrive about 24-48 hours before a storm is projected to make landfall, and they continue to come out until the coastal impacts of the storm have receded, sometimes well after the storm has passed.

The report also provides details about the storm tide associated with the storm, which is the sum of the surge of the water because of the storm, the astronomical tides, and any pre-storm high water level conditions. And if you consider that most people in the U.S. live along the coast in places less than 10 feet above sea level, you can see why this is good info to know. Storm tides are the number one cause of storm damage. The National Water Level Observation Network and everything we just talked about is from NOS’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services. And you can find out more at tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov.

Now let’s look at what’s going on after a storm hits. In addition the continuing monitoring of water level and weather observations we just talked about, the NOS also plays a lead role in navigational surveys, aerial photography surveys, and hazardous spill response.

Let’s take a look at navigational surveys first. After a hurricane strikes, the Office of Coast Survey dispatches emergency Navigation Response Teams to the site to help get ports and waterways back open as fast as possible. They use sonar and divers to check for obstructions and hazards to navigation. This work is critical – not only does it help get our waterways and ports flowing again so supplies can get to the people who need them in these areas, it also helps to get commerce back up and running in the region. And while these teams are out doing their work, they’re also collecting data that they’ll use to update navigational charts for the area that mariners rely on. And you can get nautical charts online, for free at www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov.

Next up, let’s talk about aerial surveys. Many people don’t know this, but the ocean service begins flying survey missions to take pictures of coastal areas hit by a hurricane just days after the storm strikes. This service is provided by the National Geodetic Survey. To give you an idea how it works, let’s look back at a hurricane we all know about, Katrina. The day after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey began flying photo survey missions to assess damage. The NGS then made the photographs available on the internet to help those most affected by the hurricane determine if their homes, businesses, and properties had been damaged or destroyed. Nearly five million photos were downloaded daily from NOAA Web sites in a one-week period after Katrina. Companies like Google Earth, GlobeXplorer, and Telascience integrated the imagery into their Web service. Insurance companies also began using the photos to help resolve claims. The oil and gas industry used the images to speed rebuilding its facilities. In total, over 8,300 images were taken during these missions. And as with most of the products and services we’re talking about today, you can see the photos taken after Katrina and following major storms up through the end of last year’s hurricane season online at ngs.woc.noaa.gov/eri_page/.

And finally, the NOS Office of Response and Restoration plays a major role after a hurricane hits by responding to hazardous material spills. Staff from this office work with partners – the main partner is the U.S. Coast Guard -- to survey vessels, pipelines, wells, or containers that may be leaking hazardous fuel, oil, or chemicals. And they fly on missions to locate and track offshore sources of spills. This data is combined with current weather and water conditions to develop computer models to help predict spill movement and to figure out where the greatest pollution threats are likely to occur. Added to this, the office lends a hand with vessel salvage, shoreline cleanup, and helping to understand how spills will affect natural resources in the region. And the office’s team of scientist and economists also assess the injuries done to natural resources caused by hazardous spills, grounding and debris. Response and Restoration then works with other agencies and industry to expedite restoration … and that’s good for the natural resources that were injured, and for the people that live in the area.

Last but not least, the office is responsible for mapping and surveying marine debris. If you’ve seen photos of the unbelievable amount of trash and debris along the coasts following a major hurricane, you know that this is a huge task. I want to highlight one area specifically, the Gulf of Mexico. As you probably know, this is one of the main areas affected by hurricanes in the U.S. and it’s been a major focus of response and restoration activities for many years. If you live in the Gulf Region, be sure to check out gulfofmexico.marinedebris.noaa.gov. This will give you a good idea of the extent of marine debris in this region from the hurricanes that have hit the region over the past three years, and it points to other resources to get Gulf storm information. It’s a great resource. And speaking of the Gulf, Response and Restoration is also leading the development of a new 15,000 square foot hurricane-hardened Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama, that is slated to open in 2011. Given how vulnerable this region is to hurricanes, the new center is going to be a huge step forward in coordinated emergency management when future storms hit. We’ll have more on that in the future once construction is completed. If you’re looking for more information on the many tasks handled by the Office of Response and Restoration, you can start your journey at response.restoration.noaa.gov.

So the Ocean Service plays a big role in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, but the work doesn’t stop there. For weeks, months, and even years after a hurricane hits the shores, the work continues to better understand the effect of the hurricane, in recovery planning, and in monitoring the effects of contaminants released from the storm on the environment.

Let’s start by looking at activities of the NOAA Coastal Services Center. Long after a storm strikes, there are many big questions that need answered. What is the economic impact of the storm? What’s the ecological impact, or the cost to the environment? Where is the debris concentrated? How much wetlands were lost? Coastal Services Center experts help answer these questions by crunching data, and generating maps and detailed reports. These products can include everything from aerial imagery of the affected region before and after the storm, digital elevation data to measure how the coastline has changed as a result of the storm, to long-term recovery plans. It’s all rolled into what the Coastal Services Center calls the ‘Digital Coast,’ and you can learn more at www.csc.noaa.gov/digitalcoast. There’s a lot to Digital Coast, and the tools available cover much, much more than long-term hurricane response. But I want to highlight one very cool hurricane-related product produced by this office. It’s called the online Historical Hurricane Tracks. This tool helps get a quick picture of coastal areas with the greatest frequency of hurricanes and tropical storms—and that historical “snapshot” can help community members and local emergency managers develop better plans for storm preparation and recovery.

But the Coastal Services Center isn’t the only office with long-term recovery planning duties. The NOS Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management is also involved in the effort. And this office is also especially involved with decision making before storms hit -- through a program called NOAA Coastal Zone Management. The CZM program works with states to help coastal communities decide things like where to place buildings and roads to reduce loss of life and property from storms. In Texas, for example, CZM funding is helping the state map hazardous areas throughout the Texas coastal zone to identify places that are especially vulnerable to hurricanes. You can find out more about Coastal Zone Management at coastalmanagement.noaa.gov.

The final office we’re going to talk about today is NOAA’s National Status and Trends program, part of the NOS National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. We’ve talked about the impact to the environment, to commerce, and to our coastlines…but what about the long-term effect of the contaminants released during a hurricane on our coastal waters and estuaries? Or what about human health risks from eating fish and shellfish in the area? That’s the main concern of this program. Even after the big fuel, oil, and other chemical spills are cleaned up after a hurricane, contamination can still be a big problem for many years. National Status and Trends experts are key to figuring out how big the problem is, not only in hurricane-ravaged areas, but in coastal waters and estuaries around the country. They do the job by monitoring sediments, tissues of shellfish like oysters, and by sampling the water…and they’ve been doing this for decades. In fact, it’s the only long-term coastal and estuary contaminant monitoring effort in the US. Because they have so many years of data from sites around the country, they have a window over time to the contaminant levels in many, many areas. As you can imagine, this comes in handy when trying to figure out the impact of contaminants following a hurricane.

As is the case for all the NOS teams involved in dealing with the hurricane response, sometimes getting the job done isn’t easy. Let me give you an example. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, two NOAA scientists from the NOAA’s Mussel Watch program, part of National Status and Trends, headed out to collect oysters to answer key questions about water quality. No one knew if the force and damage of the hurricanes had led to chemical or biological contamination, or if the contamination was bad enough to threaten human health. They couldn’t get to the site by car, so they ended up catching a ride on two boats in the area to reach sampling areas in devastated areas like the collapsed Biloxi Bay Bridge. At the bridge, the team waded into the space underneath collapsed concrete sections and began scraping for oyster samples. Luckily, tests on the samples they collected there and around the area showed that while contamination was elevated in some places, it was not imminently dangerous to the local population.

You might wonder why oysters and mussels are sampled. That’s because these shellfish are filter feeders, meaning they get their food by filtering water through their bodies. And this makes them ideal specimens to test for contaminants...because everything in the water around their homes – including nasty stuff like pesticides, herbicides, and other human pathogens -- collects in their tissues. I’m going to give you the link now to National Status and Trends, but I’ll warn you that it’s a long one: ccma.nos.noaa.gov/about/coast/nsandt/.

(CLOSING)

But don’t worry about writing it down. We have an accompanying story about our hurricane response activities at oceanservice.noaa.gov, where you can get this link…and all the links we’ve referenced today.

Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Hopefully you now have a better idea of some of the many products and services offered by the National Ocean Service in support of hurricane response. Our main goal is to let you know this information is out there, it’s online, and it’s freely available.

Let’s end how we began with a reminder that hurricane season starts June 1st and runs through the end of November. And regardless of what the NOAA forecasts predict for this season, the main thing to keep in mind is that it’s time to start thinking about preparation and preparedness.

And that’s all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at nos.info@noaa.gov.

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. We’ll be back with our next episode on June 11th, and it’s going to be a good one. In honor of World Ocean Day on June 8th, we’re going to talk with renowned environmental artist Wyland about his work in preserving the world’s oceans, waterways, and marine life. We’ll see you then.


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