Even as many areas continue to recover from Hurricane Sandy—a storm that battered the U.S. East Coast in October, 2012—National Park Service (NPS) scientists are unearthing new information that will help vulnerable coastal areas prepare for and respond to future storms. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
By Jamie Remillard
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, park scientists in the northeast coastal region identified critical information gaps. Notably, they found gaps in elevation data, such as measurements of height above sea level at specific locations. NPS photo.
NPS’s Northeast Coastal and Barrier Network (NCBN) made it a top priority to fill those information gaps and collect more comprehensive, up-to-date elevation data on important places in coastal parks. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
A regionally defined network of eight NPS sites from Massachusetts to Virginia, NCBN, which is part of the NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program, tracks the condition of coastal park ecosystems through long-term monitoring. NPS map.
On May 7, 2013, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) invested $475 million in 234 mitigation projects that aim to repair, rebuild, promote recovery, preserve historic sites and artifacts, and contribute to scientific data and studies in National Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuges, and other assets damaged by Hurricane Sandy. NPS photo.
Among the projects launched through DOI mitigation funding is a landmark elevation data initiative in the northeast coastal parks. NCBN and its partners designed the project to produce elevation maps and models that will show how storms, sea level rise, and climate change impacts could affect park infrastructure as well as cultural and natural resources. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
Park scientists have long collected elevation data in National Parks, but in the past, limited budgets and a short supply of equipment hindered their ability to create expansive and precise maps to show the specific vulnerabilities of important coastal resources. By placing a cache of new equipment and more trained technicians in the field, the post-Sandy DOI mitigation funding is changing that. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
As part of its DOI-funded project, the NPS purchased new survey-grade GPS units to collect high-resolution elevation information on park resources and facilities. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
With the new gear, park scientists in the region can create precise maps and models to learn, for example, how high above sea level buildings, roads, bridges, and boardwalks will be when future storms hit. Park managers, in turn, can use the maps and models to make science-based decisions and plan against future threats. NPS photo.
An October 2014 gathering marked the unofficial kickoff to this project. Park scientists and specialists of many stripes—biologists, coastal ecologists, park GIS specialists, NCBN Inventory and Monitoring Program staff, and technicians—convened at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston, R.I., for a three-day GPS training. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
The training (which was also funded through the DOI mitigation grants) drew park staff and partners from Assateague Island National Seashore, Fire Island National Seashore, Gateway National Recreation Area, Cape Cod National Seashore, Acadia National Park, and the URI Environmental Data Center. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
NPS Regional Coastal Ecologist Patricia Rafferty, who participated in the training, said, “Instead of looking myopically at one park, we’re looking from Assateague to Cape Cod . . . This is a unique opportunity.” And indeed, over the course of many missions, the 18 training participants will collect and process elevation data for hundreds of miles of U.S. coastline from Maine to Maryland. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
The new GPS units are complicated, highly technical devices, requiring extensive knowledge of spatial data development. Participants trained in the field and in the classroom, where they learned about the software used to process and interpret the data. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
In addition to providing support for new, high-resolution equipment and training, the DOI mitigation funding increased the number of systems available to NPS scientists and technicians. As a result, a team of trained NPS technicians in the northeast region can collect data faster and more efficiently than in the past. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
A group of trained NPS technicians and scientists traditionally works together to consolidate all available resources, including expertise and equipment, and conduct intensive elevation surveys throughout NCBN parks. In this way, they expedite data collection in key areas of concern. They call themselves a “GPS SWAT Team.” NPS photo/D.Filippini.
Likewise, the new GPS units enhance efficiency. Equipped with lasers and robotics, they remove scientists’ dependence on manual tools in the field, so measurements can be collected rapidly. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
The new units are also significantly more accurate than models previously available to NPS staff. The lawn outside of the URI Coastal Institute, where the training took place, is similar in size to discrete park sites that are slated for elevation data collection. With older equipment, surveying an area this size would take several researchers weeks to complete, and results would be accurate to within centimeters. With the new equipment, the same survey will take one person only a day or two to complete and will offer results within millimeters of accuracy. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
Conventional survey instruments rely on satellite signals to deliver information, just like a cell phone or a GPS unit in a car. As a result, they’re not very reliable in forests, where thick tree cover obstructs signals. Some of the new units resolve this problem and produce results even without access to a satellite signal. “We can work in places that we couldn’t work before. And now, we can send out many armies,” says Rafferty. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
The post-Sandy mitigation funding and the equipment and training that it’s made possible are already producing tangible, long-term benefits for coastal National Parks in the northeast region. Park scientists have gathered critical scientific data, and they’re beginning to fill information gaps to make reliable predictions about how complex coastal phenomena might impact park resources. NPS photo/M. Bradley.
Park scientists are recording the elevations of important places in coastal parks, including natural resources and coastal habitats where wildlife and vegetation thrive. NPS photos/American oystercatcher eggs, D. Filippini; wild ponies, R. Baranowski; Atamasco lily, S. Stevens.
The GPS SWAT Team has collected elevation data on the first floors of park offices and operations facilities, at historical sites, and for cultural resources like the Statue of Liberty, the remnants of the Bessie White shipwreck at Fire Island, and the Fire Island Lighthouse, which still casts light across more than twenty miles of open sea. NPS photos.
Above all, the goal of this painstaking work is to learn how ecosystems, cultural sites, infrastructure, and other physical resources in coastal National Parks will fare in light of the increased intensity and number of storms, rapid sea level rise, and other effects of climate change. NPS photo.
Will coastal resources be resilient despite these pressures? How might these changes affect coastal towns and communities? Elevation is one of the most basic units of information needed to answer these questions. Once collected, it can be combined with other information, such as tides and water levels, to create predictive models that forecast the resiliency of key resources, including how likely they are to be flooded when storms hit. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.
Together, the new advanced survey equipment and the training for NPS staff have already contributed to the creation of high-quality, regional models that park scientists and park managers can use to make science-based decisions about coastal resources. NPS photo/E. Nicosia.