NOAA Sentinel Sites

Tackling Coastal Problems through Cooperation

Have you heard the expression that the 'whole is greater than the sum of its parts?' That's the idea behind the Sentinel Site Program. NOAA has coastal monitoring and data collection tools, sanctuaries, estuarine reserves, marine protected areas, and other assets located in coastal areas around the nation. These places and equipment serve many functions, such as protecting natural resources, measuring tides, and establishing accurate height measurements.

At coastal locations—particularly in places with dense populations and bustling maritime activity—the number of regional NOAA assets are particularly dense and bustling, too! These Cooperatives bring to bear the full force of NOAA coastal and ecosystem monitoring, measurement, and tools in partnership with federal, state, and local efforts to help solve concrete problems that people are facing in coastal communities.

Who will use the products and services developed by NOAA Sentinel Site Cooperatives? People such as coastal zone, resource, and protected area managers; emergency and disaster response personnel; restoration practitioners; coastal research scientists; commercial fisheries managers; members of the maritime commerce and insurance industries; and local planning, tourism, and economic development boards. The NOAA Sentinel Site Program directly engages local, state, and federal managers as part of the Cooperative team. By doing so, managers help ensure the types of science conducted, information gathered, and products developed are immediately used for better management.

NOAA Sentinel Site Program Locations

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First Up: Sea Level Change

The first order of business for NOAA's Sentinel Sites Program is to shed light on impacts of climate change, focusing on sea level change and coastal inundation. This effort is about more than simply gathering data. It's about gathering people from many backgrounds and disciplines—NOAA and other federal experts, state and local government decision makers, university researchers, and other people who have a stake in a particular region. This 'cooperative' atmosphere will lead to novel solutions to address real-world local problems, such as how to protect a development from rising sea levels or how to best protect a sensitive shoreline habitat.

Why tackle climate change issues with Sentinel Site Cooperatives? The answer is simple. Sea level change and coastal inundation are global issues, but the impacts that communities face are unique. When decisions are made to address coastal threats, those decisions must be tailored to each community. In other words, climate change challenges are best addressed at the local level—using local climate change forecasts, local ocean data, and local information about the people and resources in affected areas. That doesn't mean that solutions generated by Sentinel Site Cooperatives will apply only to individual communities. In many cases, lessons learned in one Cooperative will be applicable to similar areas around the nation.

While the Sentinel Site Program will initially focus on the impacts of sea level change and coastal inundation patterns, this is only the beginning. Future focus areas might include ocean acidification, increased drought or precipitation, or changes in land use patterns. The flexibility to address a variety of different coastal problems points to the greatest strength of the program: Sentinel Site Cooperatives are dynamic. Studying ocean acidification, for instance, may require shifting regional boundaries or selecting different observation tools within a given site. With the Sentinel Site structure and strong regional partnerships in place, NOAA assets may be rearranged at any time to meet new coastal challenges. The networked structure of the program also fosters collaboration and knowledge sharing across Cooperative boundaries. In instances where different regions face similar issues, this will lead to greater efficiencies in tackling common problems simultaneously.

Tying it All Together

What sort of decisions might result from a Sentinel Site Cooperative? Take the Northern Gulf of Mexico Sentinel Site Cooperative as an example. In this region, there are different tools, resources, and programs that deliver valuable services in their own right, but tying them all together into a Cooperative sets the stage to tackle specific, broader coastal problems facing people throughout this region. The strength of the program is that it brings together a network of people, expertise, and resources that are tied to a single place with a common need. Here are some types of Sentinel Site activities that may result:

  • A state management agency that is planning to collect Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) data might increase their area of coverage to include a particular marine protected area (MPA);
  • The National Ocean Service might adjust the planned location of a particular observing system, such as tide station, to address not only mandated requirements, but also to support tide control within the same MPA, and might also conduct a shallow water bathymetric survey;
  • The federal entity managing this location would continue its ongoing biomonitoring program, but take extra steps to tie into local geospatial frameworks (such as elevation);
  • The availability of spatially-focused physical and biological data might enable the development of new ecological forecasting models, which could inform resource management decision-making;
  • The availability of elevation and bathymetry data could facilitate the development of a new digital elevation model, which would be used to develop a coastal hydrodynamic model;
  • The model and geospatial data together might allow NOAA to develop an inundation visualization tool and enhance local storm surge forecast products, which could inform emergency management action, as well as long-term coastal and ocean planning, and sea level change policy.

The Sentinel Site program kicked off in 2011 with the selection of five initial Cooperatives. These locations were selected based on many factors: the potential for measuring ecological impact of sea level change; socioeconomic factors, such as large population centers; the potential to expand the use of existing NOAA tools, services, and other assets in a given region; and the potential to apply science-based solutions to solve specific regional coastal problems. These are not the only coastal areas in the U.S. that may meet the criteria. Other regions may be added within the next few years. Send us an email if you're interested in learning more about the program.