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Past Decade of Extreme Storms Leaves Coasts Vulnerable

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Impacts on the coastline of the northern Gulf of Mexico from a decade of extreme storms have left many coastal areas vulnerable to future storm events, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Coastal Change Hazards Program. Over the past 10 years, 58 percent of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coastline has been hit by hurricane-force winds. Major hurricanes like Ivan, Katrina, Rita, and Ike have pummeled and eroded beaches and sand dunes along the Gulf Coast. These coastal features are commonly the first line of defense for coastal communities and ecosystems against extreme storms.

Gulf of Mexico, showing coastlines affected by hurricanes from 2000 to 2009.
Above: Gulf of Mexico, showing coastlines affected by hurricanes from 2000 to 2009. [larger version]

"Recent hurricanes have caused significant erosion of coastal features and, in some places, lowered barrier-island elevations. It is important to understand how such lowering of beaches and dunes can increase the vulnerability of coasts to future storms," said Abby Sallenger, USGS oceanographer in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"The vulnerability of barrier islands or coasts to inundation during extreme storms is determined, in part, by the elevation of the seaward-most sand dunes or beach berm. The dunes act as an important line of defense, taking the brunt of waves and storm surge and somewhat reducing the impact on coastal communities. On engineered coastlines, seawalls or other structures may be used to provide this protection," said Hilary Stockdon, another USGS oceanographer in the St. Petersburg center.

Assessment of inundation potential (storm surge minus dune elevation) for Galveston, Texas, using modeled storm surge based on Hurricane Ike storm conditions and landfall location.
Above: Assessment of inundation potential (storm surge minus dune elevation) for Galveston, Texas, using modeled storm surge based on Hurricane Ike storm conditions and landfall location. In most areas, severe inundation (red colors) and coastal change were expected because updated surge estimates exceeded the elevations of the primary dunes/berms. (From Hurricane Ike - Post-Landfall Assessment of Potential Coastal-Change Impacts). [larger version]

One aspect to improving preparation for, emergency response to, and recovery after extreme storms is predicting the types of coastal change that may occur when a hurricane makes landfall. The Coastal Change Hazards Program studies the response of coastal environments to extreme waves, storm surge, and currents. USGS scientists coordinate with other State and Federal agencies in predicting the likely interactions between waves, storm surge, and coastal topography during extreme storms. Accurate predictions can improve response times and provide valuable information to the public, coastal managers, and emergency-response teams.

A paper published in the February 2010 edition of Eos (Transactions of the American Geophysical Union) describes how this predictive ability was tested on Hurricane Ike in 2008.

"Using observations of coastal morphology and models of storm surge, we were able to predict the vulnerability of the Galveston coastline to extreme coastal changes during the landfall of Hurricane Ike," said Nathaniel Plant, lead author of the study. Examples of predictions of coastal-change impacts for Hurricane Ike are posted online at

For more information about the USGS Coastal Change Hazards Program, visit The full citation for the recent paper is: Plant, Nathaniel, Stockdon, Hilary, and Sallenger, Abby, 2010, Forecasting hurricane impact on coastal topography: Eos (American Geophysical Union Transactions), v. 91, no. 7, p. 65, doi:10.1029/2010EO070001 [].

Related Sound Waves Stories
Storm Impact, Sea-Floor Change, and Barrier-Island Evolution: Scientists Map the Sea Floor and Stratigraphy Around Ship and Horn Islands, Northern Gulf of Mexico
March 2009
Gulf Coast Impacts of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike Documented by USGS Extreme-Storms Group
October 2008

Related Web Sites
Coastal Change Hazards: Hurricanes and Extreme Storms
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Forecasting Hurricane Impact on Coastal Topography

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Fieldwork cover story:
USGS Responds to Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

ResearchExtreme Storms Leave Coasts Vulnerable

Fish and Wildlife Face Risks as Climate Changes

Natural Gas Potential Assessed in Eastern Mediterranean

Outreach Open House in Florida

Meetings Vulnerability of Coasts to Sea-Level Rise

Awards Best Poster Award from Pacific Section AAPG

Publications May / June 2010 Publications U. S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
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Updated May 06, 2014 @ 02:13 PM (JSG)