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Making Waves: Episode 98 (May 31, 2012)

You're listening to Making Waves. I'm Troy Kitch.  

It’s the end of May … and that means it’s not only the start of the summer season, it’s the beginning of hurricane season. Most people know that NOAA’s National Weather Service plays a huge role when hurricanes threaten our coasts…but what role does NOAA’s National Ocean Service play? You’re going to find out today. And along the way, you’re going to be introduced to a lot of online tools and info that you can use before, during, and after hurricanes strike.

Let’s start off with a quick wrap-up of this season’s hurricane predictions for the Pacific and the Atlantic, issued by NOAA just last week.

Conditions in the atmosphere and the ocean favor a near-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin. For the entire six-month season, which begins June 1, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says there’s a 70 percent chance of nine to 15 named storms, of which four to eight will strengthen to a hurricane (with top winds of 74 mph or higher) and of those one to three will become major hurricanes (with top winds of 111 mph or higher -- Category 3, 4 or 5). Based on the period between 1981 and 2010, an average season produces 12 named storms with six hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.

For the Pacific, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says that climate conditions point to a near-normal hurricane season in the Eastern Pacific this year. Seasonal hurricane forecasters estimate a 70 percent chance of 12 to 18 named storms, which includes 5 to 9 hurricanes, of which 2 to 5 are expected to become major hurricanes. An average Eastern Pacific hurricane season produces 15 named storms, with eight becoming hurricanes and four becoming major hurricanes. The Eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 through Nov. 30, with peak activity from July through September.

And finally, NOAA’s Central Pacific Hurricane Center says that projected climate conditions point to a below-normal hurricane season in the Central Pacific Basin. The 2012 outlook calls for a 50 percent chance of a below-normal season, with 2-4 tropical cyclones in the Central Pacific this season. An average season has 4-5 tropical cyclones, which include tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes. 

So that’s the big picture 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 to get the full picture.

The 2012 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 Ocean Service plays a major role in hurricane response before storms hit the coast, when they hit, and long after they pass. I’m not going to bog you down with a bunch of website links – just remember one … Head there, surf to our podcast page, and there you’ll find links to all of the things we’ll talk about in this episode.

Let’s start with the National Water Level Observation Network, which provides near real-time ocean and weather observations. This network is made up over 200 stations around the country that continuously monitor water levels. One component of this network that I want to highlight are called "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 to plan out evacuation routes, opening and closing of locks and dams, and when to make public warnings.

Another tool you really need to add to your online bookmark collection is called Storm QuickLook. And as the name suggests, when a tropical storm forms, 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 right after the National Hurricane Center identifies a tropical system and continue to come out until well after the storm has passed.

QuickLook 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 to know. Storm tides are the number one cause of storm damage.

Now let’s look at what’s going on at NOS after a storm hits. First up: navigational surveys. After a hurricane strikes, our Coast Survey office helps 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.

Next up: aerial surveys. Many people don’t know this, but our National Geodetic Survey begins flying survey missions to take pictures of coastal areas hit by a hurricane just days after the storm strikes. These photos are posted online for everybody to see so those most affected by the hurricane can see if their homes, businesses, and properties have been damaged or destroyed.

And last up: our Response and Restoration plays a huge role after a hurricane hits by responding to hazardous material spills. Working with partners like the U.S. Coast Guard, teams 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 info is combined with current weather and water conditions to develop computer models that help predict spill movement and to figure out where the greatest pollution threats are likely to occur. Added to this, Response and Restoration lends a hand with vessel salvage, shoreline cleanup, and helping to understand how spills will affect natural resources in the region. And then there’s the restoration part -- Ocean Service scientists and economists may spend years after a storm hits carefully studying injuries done to natural resources caused by hazardous spills, groundings, and debris … and laying the groundwork so that these areas can be restored back to health.

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, NOAA men and women work 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.

Consider this: 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? NOAA’s 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 definitely need to check this out. 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 Historical Hurricane Tracks. This free online tool helps get a quick picture of coastal areas with the greatest frequency of hurricanes and tropical storms—and that historical “snapshot” helps people develop better plans for storm preparation and recovery.

But the Coastal Services Center isn’t the only office involved with long-term recovery planning duties. Our Ocean and Coastal Resource Management office deals 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.

Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Hopefully you now have a better idea of some of the many things that we do at 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. Head to to get the links.

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 week. If you have any questions about this episode, about our oceans, or about the National Ocean Service, send us an email at And if you’re socially inclined, don’t forget that you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Youtube.

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. We’ll return in two weeks.