Computer modeling facilitates discussion of coastal hazards

RENCI’s Brian Blanton, PhD, recently gave a talk called “Simulating Storm Surge for Coastal Hazard and Risk Assessment” as part of a Disaster Resilience Symposium held at Virginia Tech.

The goal of the symposium was to facilitate interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration on efforts to reduce the ecological and socioeconomic risks of coastal hazards. Living on a coastline comes with a certain set of risks, and coastal resilience researchers study the most effective ways to ensure coastal communities have the ability to bounce back after events such as tropical cyclones and tsunamis, and the resulting flooding and inundation.

Blanton, an oceanographer who leads RENCI’s environmental initiatives team, has worked to model coastal storm surge for the past 15 years.

According to United Nations research, 44 percent of the world’s population lives along a coast, and that number is likely to increase because people tend to move toward coastal regions. With numbers like this, it is crucial to ask the big questions. For example, how can we provide coastal residents with insurance in a sustainable manner?

Blanton, his research team, and high performance computing help to answer these big questions by using data from real storms to run simulations. Those simulations are then used to create maps which allow planners to determine if there is a feasible way to build resilient communities that are functional and sustainable for 10, 15, or 20 years.

By considering data such as coastal terrain, storm atmospheric pressure, winds, and waves generated by winds, Blanton and his peers are able to model and forecast storms and storm surge to improve coastal flood predictions. Those improved predictions have already been used to create new coastal floodplain maps in North Carolina. These maps are used to help determine coastal flood insurance rates under FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, and as the maps are updated, they more accurately reflect the true risk of living in these areas.

As people recognize the risks – even if that recognition comes through changing insurance rates – they will be better prepared to take part in discussions about coastal risk, resilience, and sustainability, and they will have more accurate data for making better decisions.

In addition to Blanton’s talk on storm surge simulations, Chad Briggs, strategy director at GlobalInt, and Donald T. Resio, director of the Taylor Engineering Research Institute at the University of Northern Florida, both spoke on issues of coastal resilience.

-Stephanie Suber