Since 2012, National Weather Service meteorologist John Cannon has worked with UMaine researchers to improve storm models and forecasts. With increased intensity and frequency of nor’easters and other strong storms, early warning is needed to cope with storm surge, flooding and erosion.
Coastal storms are one of the biggest dangers, because they can induce flooding, and they can induce erosion.
A lot of forecasts we do over the land, people can pull over in their car if they have a problem. When you’re out in a boat, there’s nowhere to pull over, so it’s very critical for the livelihoods of the people going out there.
We’re trying to find out, how vulnerable is Maine to things like storm surge?
This is from the Patriots Day storm, and you can see the effects of coastal inundation, versus wave battering. The eventual loss of infrastructure and homes comes just right up the beach where 32‑foot near‑shore waves were striking homes and actually pulling them out to sea.
Our biggest storms are northeasters, and they tend to come in the wintertime. They produce storm surges, or an elevation of the water, that is usually on top of the tides. If a big storm surge comes at the time of high tide, we end up having coastal flooding.
We do operational day‑to‑day forecasting. We’re here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When the weather is not that bad out, we work on research and outreach. We do research with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, NERACOOS, Maine Sea Grant, University of Maine, and many other partners.
Basically, I’m doing coastal hydrodynamics study. We simulate waves in the coastal area and also the coastal current and storm surge that can provide valuable information, say, what it’s going to look like in this area if, say, we’ve got a storm. Beach erosion is a big problem here as well.
On top of the storm, we add sea level rise on top of that, how actually the coastal flooding behavior going to change, and how we can make decisions ahead of time to inform people, inform the communities, so then people can be actually prepared ahead of time.
They’re looking back, and they’re trying to do a sensitivity study on what’s the biggest contributor to the coastal flooding? Is it the windspeed? Is it the salinity? Is it the currents? They’ve done some fantastic work in that department.
We’re looking at how storm surge propagates into estuaries and how the geometry and physical characteristics of an estuary affect how the water propagates through it. The goal then, with citizen science, is bringing in the social science aspect of that and trying to involve the community.
Each citizen scientist has a pressure sensor that collects pressure data. We collect it once a month, and they upload it to a website. Then we can take that data and process it and convert it to water levels, which can show us if there’s a storm surge or not when we have a storm event.
I enjoy being challenged. I enjoy the problem solving. I had to redesign the moorings for the second iteration of the project so that citizen scientists could use them.
This whole project of measuring the beaches started in the summer of 1999. Along with professor Joe Kelley and Dan Belknap at the University of Maine, I wrote a proposal with them to Maine Sea Grant. We’ve been able to measure the beaches for more than a couple of decades now.
That’s important, because it gave us a chance to collect the data with the use of citizen scientists or volunteers. It’s something we couldn’t do on our own. As a result of that, we’ve got a long data set and a geographic footprint that covers most of the beaches in Maine.
When you’re looking at Wells Beach, this was the top of the beach before the storm in this blue line right here going all the way to the water. You’re looking at the topography of the beach as you go down.
Immediately after Hurricane Sandy, we had another survey completed. That’s this red line here. That’s the beach height. We measured the topography of the beach immediately after the storm. In this case, the entire beach length lost a meter of sand.
We have to manage the beaches well to maintain, as geologists call it, their sand budget, so that they don’t get eroded away and they don’t wash away. At the same time, we would then begin to see a decline in our tourism revenues and economic consequences of that.
I didn’t know what coastal engineering was, when I was a sophomore. It definitely opened my eyes up to an entire subdiscipline of civil engineering. I think climate change is the next biggest issue of my generation, of generations of the world right now. There are so many different angles to come in on that, and this is the one I’ve found that I thoroughly enjoy.
We haven’t seen a superstorm yet, but we’re thinking it’s important that people understand what that potential is. We have to have the coincidence of the high tides, the king tides, a five‑foot surge at high tide, and we have to have the 30‑foot waves. If we want to plan for the worst‑case scenario, that’s what it would be.