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Diving Deeper: COASTAL Tools You Can Use

Episode 38 (May 24, 2012)

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I'm your host Kate Nielsen.

Today's question is...How do we translate oceanographic data into information we can use?

Oceanographic data is critical for safe navigation. There are also a number of non-navigation uses of oceanographic data including sea level assessments, storm surge monitoring, and emergency preparedness. NOAA scientists have developed a series of tools to help coastal and emergency managers turn oceanographic data into meaningful information.

Today we will talk with Allison Allen on some of these very tools. Allison is the Coastal Program Manager with the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services. Hi Allison, welcome to our show.

ALLISON ALLEN: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me here today.

HOST: Allison, let's first talk about the benefits of oceanographic data. Can you expand on some of these non-navigational uses of the data?

ALLISON ALLEN: Sure, as you mentioned, NOAA's Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services has its roots in navigation. But we learned long ago that that same information that's important for navigation and bringing ships in safely is also critical for coastal managers and emergency managers. So, we developed the COASTAL program, which is the Coastal Oceanographic Applications and Services of Tides And Lakes.

And that really focuses on three big areas, and that's really ecosystems, so things like, when you're designing a new marsh you really need to understand how high it is and how the tidal flushing is going to happen so you can make sure that it's functional. And also, you'll hear more about harmful algal bloom forecasting today as well. It also focuses on hazards, so storm surge and tsunami and understanding what the real-time conditions are as well as planning for the future. And then also climate. The tide gauges that we'll talk about today have long-term records. We have collected over 150 years of data at some of those locations, which makes it a very important climate record. And really, you hear about satellite altimeters and they collect ocean information as well, but they've really only been in existence for a fraction of that period. So, what we know about the climate, we've learned from tide gauges.

HOST: Allison, how do we collect oceanographic data? Are tide gauges the primary source of data for the COASTAL tools that we'll talk about today?

ALLISON ALLEN: The ones that we'll talk about today are really, water levels, which we collect at the National Water Level Observation Network which is a network of 210 long-term water level stations. And CO-OPS, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, also collects current information, tidal current information. And we collect that on a routine basis to update tidal predictions and tidal current predictions, but then also on a real-time basis for things like safe navigation and some of the products that you'll hear about today.

HOST: So, we'll talk soon about the tools that your group is producing, but first, why do we need to turn oceanographic data into information? What format is it in originally? And can't we just get what we need right from the data itself?

ALLISON ALLEN: Well, let's face it. Data can be a little bit boring. It can be a little bit confusing. And the general public shouldn't need to know necessarily how to interpret that. And also, I mentioned hurricanes and tsunamis, those are very intense events and they require a lot of quick decision making and people shouldn't have to be trying to interpret and analyze the data when lives are at stake. So, we have a wonderful staff of oceanographers and physical scientists whose job it is to look at that information and analyze it and turn it into information that people can understand and that can translate into informed decision making in action.

HOST: And Allison, who are you targeting, who are the immediate users, of the tools that you've put together?

ALLISON ALLEN: Sure. We're going to talk today about four specific different types of tools, they each have a slightly different focus, but generally speaking we're targeting emergency managers and coastal managers.

HOST: So Allison, why is your office in NOAA, we've mentioned them a few times now, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, why is your office responsible for developing these sorts of tools?

ALLISON ALLEN: We have this amazing asset. We have all of these sensors and this information and we also have these physical scientists and oceanographers on staff that are able to interpret that information and analyze it. So what we provide is really a value-added end-to-end system that doesn't just end with a sensor in the water, but really ends with that value-added product suite. And so, we're going to talk today about four specific products, some of which are coming out now and some of which have been around for a little bit. One is the Storm QuickLook, one is the exceedance probability, the inundation analysis, and harmful algal bloom forecasts.

HOST: OK. So, let's take these tools then one at a time just to understand each one better. First, what does Storm QuickLook do?

ALLISON ALLEN: Storm QuickLook provides a really great integrated display of what's happening with water levels and meteorological information during a storm. So it really combines the tropical cyclone forecast from the National Weather Service with the coastal water level and meteorological observations from the National Ocean Service in one comprehensive product. So it really looks at not just the forecast and where the storm's going, but what are the very real real-time impacts at the coast.

HOST: And you mentioned an inundation tool. First, what do you mean by inundation?

ALLISON ALLEN: By inundation, I'm referring to the amount of time - both how frequently and for how long a particular surface is covered by water. So the CO-OPS inundation tool really allows a user to enter whatever reference level they're interested in. So that might be a marsh surface, it might be a seawall. It might be a road surface, like an evacuation route. And they can look at how frequently and for what period of time that surface is going to be inundated.

HOST: And, what are the benefits then of an inundation tool?

ALLISON ALLEN: The inundation tool is available at all of our tide station locations. Right now it has both immediate and long-term benefits. It was originally developed to support restoration practitioners in knowing what marsh vegetation to plant where and created and restored marshes based on the specific tolerances in order to maximize the potential for sustainability of those particular plants. But it's also being used, for instance, by the Weather Forecast Offices in the National Weather Service to quantify and understand the impacts of threshold flood events. But you can also use it for long-term planning. So the information that comes out of this tool can be paired with changes in long-term sea level for instance allowing you to predict future trends in inundation. So that would be used for things like setbacks or building codes or other coastal management and engineering decisions.

HOST: And you also mentioned an extreme water levels tool - what is the purpose of this tool?

ALLISON ALLEN: The extreme water levels tool or exceedance probability provides the likelihood that water levels will exceed a given elevation based on analysis of historic observations. It's currently available for about 110 of our stations in the U.S., each with over 30 years of water level data. So the product provides a series of elevations with probabilities associated with them. For instance, it provides a one percent exceedance probability, which is the height above which water levels have a one percent chance of rising during an extreme event in any given year. Some might refer to this one percent exceedance probability as the hundred year flood, for instance. It also provides shorter term probabilities such as the 10 percent probability or the 10 year storm. That information is very important in planning and engineering in the coastal zone.

HOST: And finally, you talked a little bit about harmful algal blooms. What kind of information does this tool deliver?

ALLISON ALLEN: Harmful algal blooms, commonly called red tides, cause problems on many U.S. coastlines. Having advanced warning of these events, increases the options we have for managing the impacts resulting from these events. We have an operational HAB forecast system which provides information to managers on the location, extent, and potential for development or movement of the blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. Conditions reports including potential impacts for the next three to four days are also posted online twice a week during an active bloom and once a week if there's no bloom.

The species Karenia brevis, that causes HABs in the Gulf of Mexico, poses a risk to human health and to marine life. The aerosol produced by these blooms causes respiratory irritation, particularly in at risk populations such as children or the elderly. HABs can cause toxicity in shellfish and fish and marine mammal kills. So knowing the potential for a bloom and bloom impacts really allows managers to take appropriate actions such as closing beaches or shellfish beds. But on the flip side, recreation and aquaculture bring revenue, so we don't want to take those actions unless it's necessary. The forecast provides the information to make those decisions.

HOST: So I can definitely see how for all four of these tools that they're so useful for coastal and emergency managers for everything from planning and development to protecting human health and saving lives and emergency preparedness, but how about for our listeners today who aren't coastal or emergency managers, what is the benefit for them?

ALLISON ALLEN: A huge percentage of the population lives and works along the coast and many of those who don't either know someone who does or go to the coast for recreation, so there's a personal connection there. But the tools we've discussed today still matter, even to someone who has never visited a U.S. coastline. Much of our economy relies on ports and it may even be that the shoes on your feet come from a cargo ship coming into port. Certainly we rely on our ports to bring in the natural resources such as oil. When the 2006 hurricane season badly impacted the Gulf coast and some of our major ports were shut down, we saw a very real impact when we filled our cars at the pump. The impacts at the coast affect us all and it's important to understand the risk to coastal environments, communities, and infrastructure.

Last year, a NOAA study using these COASTAL tools showed that the highway accessing Port Fourchon, LA-1, would be flooded up to 30 times a year in 20 years from now just from normal high tides based on the current rates of sea level change. That would cut off access not just to the residents of Grand Isle, LA, but to the port infrastructure that's used to bring offshore oil into the country.

HOST: So are these tools then, and the information that they provide, are they available to anyone who's interested that might visit your website, even if they're not an emergency manager?

ALLISON ALLEN: Absolutely. Everything that CO-OPS provides from the data to all of these specific tools is available to the public at large through the website, free of charge. And that website is

HOST: And Allison, you talked a little bit at the beginning about this COASTAL program that houses all four of these tools that we talked about. Is there a benefit of combining these tools and this series of tools together into one program? Do they build off of each other or relate to each other in some way?

ALLISON ALLEN: Absolutely. So, as you've heard, they have a slightly different focus, but really the power comes when you pair them together. So, you heard about the inundation analysis - that provides an important understanding of risk and vulnerability. But for a coastal engineer or a coastal planner, the power really comes when you pair that with something like the exceedance probability or the extreme water level information because that really provides the full picture of risk. So, when you're building a levee for instance, you need to understand both of those facets.

HOST: Allison, can you share with us any success stories from local communities about these tools or this information, kind of success in use?

ALLISON ALLEN: Absolutely. I'd like to share a story about a restoration project that was done at Ft. McHenry, which is near Baltimore. That was a created marsh in the 80s, but it was graded too low and so the tidal flushing wasn't functional and it was overrun by the invasive species phragmites. And so, they were recreating the marsh and they worked with us to get the oceanographic information and use some of these tools, specifically the inundation analysis information. And so they used those trends and they used the water level information to grade the new marsh. Everything from design the new sloughs to the height of the dirt itself. And years later that marsh is still functioning really well because it was designed with that information in mind. The native vegetation was able to thrive because it was given that opportunity and so the invasive species was not able to come in as quickly.

HOST: So Allison, my last question for you today, do you have any final, closing words for our listeners?

ALLISON ALLEN: NOAA is eager to provide important information in ways that coastal managers and the public can use it and we're always looking for new and exciting ways to do that. So, I just want to thank you and our listeners for the opportunity to share some of these new and exciting developments and really just highlight some of the ways that this oceanographic information is being used for non-navigational applications to really protect life and property and preserve health and some of the other benefits that we discussed today.

Thanks Allison for joining us on Diving Deeper and talking about these great information products and tools. To learn more, please visit

That's all for today's show. Please join us for our next episode in two weeks.