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Making Waves: Episode 53 (June 10, 2010)

It’s June … and for NOAA that means it's once again hurricane season.

While most people are aware that NOAA’s National Weather Service plays a central role when hurricanes threaten our coasts…less people are aware of the role that the National Ocean Service plays. Well, we’re trying to change that.

It's Thursday, June 10, 2009, and this is the annual hurricane season episode of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(Hurricane Season Outlook)
A brief programming note before we get started. You may have noticed that we haven’t talked much about the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in this podcast. The reason is that the situation is changing so rapidly, that it’s outdated before we can get the podcast out the door. To get the latest information on NOAA’s role in the ongoing response to the spill, visit

Ok, so we're going to start off today with an overview of hurricane predictions for the Pacific and the Atlantic from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center – that’s a division of the National Weather Service.

For the Atlantic Basin, we can expect an “active to extremely active” hurricane season, with a 70 percent probability of 14 to 23 Named Storms -- those storms with top winds of 39 mph or higher. Of those storms, the Weather Service projects we may see 8 to 14 Hurricanes (with top winds of 74 mph or higher). And of those Hurricanes, 3 to 7 could be major ones -- Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph. The Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1st and runs for six months.

For the Eastern Pacific, climate conditions point to a below normal hurricane season this year. The outlook calls for a 75 percent probability of a below normal season, a 20 percent probability of a near normal season and a five percent probability of an above normal season. Allowing for forecast uncertainties, seasonal hurricane forecasters estimate a 70 percent chance of 9 to 15 named storms, which includes 4 to 8 hurricanes, of which 1 to 3 are expected to become major hurricanes. The Eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 through Nov. 30, with peak activity from July through September.


Now I want to talk about some of the ways that the ocean service plays a role in hurricane response  -- before hurricanes hit the coast, when they hit, and long after the storms pass. 

One critical service the NOS provides is near real-time ocean and weather observations at 210 coastal locations. It's called the National Water Level Observation Network. And a unique part of this network are specialized hardened structures called "Sentinels of the Coast." These 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. 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.

But you don’t have to be a coastal decision-maker to see data from NOAA’s National Water Level Observation Network. It’s all freely available at 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. Again, you can find out more at

Now let’s look at what’s going on with NOS after a storm hits. In addition to the continual monitoring of water level and weather observations we just talked about, 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 in case you didn’t know, you can get nautical charts online, for free, at

Next up, let's talk about aerial surveys. Many people don't know this, but the ocean service routinely flies survey missions to take high resolution imagery of coastal areas hit by a hurricane -- or hit by other natural or manmade disasters -- to help assess damage. This service is provided by the National Geodetic Survey's Remote Sensing Division. The NGS puts all of these photographs online to help those most affected by the natural disaster determine if their homes, businesses, and properties had been damaged or destroyed. Companies like Google Earth, GlobeXplorer, and Telascience routinely integrate this imagery into their products. And insurance companies have used this imagery to help resolve claims. You can see the National Geodetic Survey's collection of imagery -- including aerial views of the Gulf related to the ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill -- at

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. 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

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. 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.

The NOS Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management also plays a key role in helping coastal communities prepare for and recover from natural disasters. And this office is also especially involved with decision making before storms hit. The Coastal Zone Management Program works with states to help coastal communities decide things like where to limit development 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. After hurricanes and other natural disasters, state coastal resource managers look to NOAA's CZM staff for assistance in working with FEMA on recovery issues and finding experts to help them on the ground. After a tsunami struck American Samoa last September, NOAA's CZM staff arranged for planning and recovery experts from Hawaii to go to American Samoa to help the territory begin rebuilding in a resilient manner. You can find out more about Coastal Zone Management at

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.  All of the links we mentioned today are online in this episode’s show notes.

I want to emphasize that all of the ocean service offices mentioned here -- and some that we didn’t mention -- are currently engaged in providing support to the oil spill in the Gulf. If you’d like to learn more about what each NOS office is contributing to the effort, head to

Let’s end how we began with a reminder that it’s hurricane season - 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

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.