RENCI at ECU works to build awareness of coastal issues

It’s been almost four years since RENCI established its East Carolina University (ECU) regional engagement center, an effort that links RENCI experts to faculty, staff and students at ECU to address issues important to coastal North Carolina.

Through research and outreach programs, RENCI at ECU is developing a coastal informatics system that includes scientific data and historical records and that can be used to address pressing problems, educate communities on coastal environmental issues, and assist emergency managers, planners and others in preparing for emergencies such as hurricanes and floods.

“We strive to engage the community with the work of the university and RENCI in ways that build a better awareness and understanding of coastal issues,” said Tom Allen, director of RENCI at ECU and associate professor of geography at ECU. Allen said the center conducts research that examines the dynamics of coastal environments and offers outreach that helps people understand the risks of living on the coast as well as the region’s colorful history.

Initiatives underway at RENCI at ECU include the following.

The North Carolina COastal HAZards decision portal (NC COHAZ)

This Web-based information system was developed to communicate coastal hazards information to residents of North Carolina’s coastal communities, including the emergency management community.  The portal includes maps and visualizations of current coastal conditions, storm surge and wave simulations from past hurricanes, tools to study the potential for coastal and estuary erosion, emergency preparedness information and links to hurricane awareness and emergency information websites.

The portal was developed by a research team led by J. P. Walsh and Reide Corbett of the ECU geological sciences department and the Institute for Coastal Science and Policy. Allen and Tom Crawford, associate professor of geographic information science, also participate in the research team. Other disciplines and centers that contribute to the portal include ECU economics, UNC Chapel Hill’s marine sciences department, the Center for Natural Hazards Research at ECU, the Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo and the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

Erosion prediction for inlets, shorelines and estuaries

Everyone on the coast knows that erosion threatens wetlands, beaches, and a much loved way of life, and many have debated policies and adaptation and mitigation plans related to erosion. RENCI at ECU works with scientists across the campus and throughout the UNC system to provide information to local communities on erosion and its impacts so they can develop policies that protect and sustain coastal communities and ecology. The approach uses observing systems such as buoys, geospatial mapping technology, and visualization to communicate scientific data in easy-to-understand formats so that new policies and sound decisions can be made using the most current scientific knowledge.

Current work involves integrating observations of estuarine and ocean shoreline change. Initiatives include:

  • Examining spatial and temporal variability in estuarine shoreline erosion,
  • Analyzing trends about ocean shorelines to create new computer models that use a vast dataset on ocean shorelines,
  • Examining landscape and seascape dynamics in 3D using state-of-the-art instrumentation to document and comprehensively understand changes, such as patterns of erosion and accretion and how barrier islands are reshaped and moved,
  • Collecting, integrating, and analyzing estuarine and oceanfront data at sites in northeastern North Carolina, from river mouths to Outer Banks beaches. The resulting integrated models provide a starting point for communication with the public.
  • Evaluating state-of-the-art terrestrial laser scans (TLS) to better understand erosion processes and the coast’s sensitivity to weather events,
  • Improving methodologies used to convey uncertainty and its propagation in erosion models.

Surge Viz

In an effort to communicate with the pubic about the risks of storm surge from hurricanes, RENCI at ECU created a library of scientific visualizations that show coastal inundation caused by storm surge. The visualizations, created using the modeling frameworks of ADCIRC and SLOSH (for Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes), were developed for Dare County emergency management officials.

All visualizations are available on the Web, which allows emergency managers and meteorologists to use them to communicate the dangers of approaching storms and to supplement evacuation orders. Animations are available for Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, Oregon Inlet, Chicamacomico and Cape Hatteras. In addition, the visualizations help researchers study how people perceive risks when they are presented visually. The visualizations are online at:

Storms to Life

The website Storms to Life compiles images, personal stories, statistics, and maps that allow visitors to track past storms in order to raise their awareness about dangerous coastal storms and how they affect coastal communities. Storms to Life includes information about storms that have impacted North Carolina over the past 200-plus years. The site’s homepage features a time line showing the state’s significant storms. As visitors mouse-over the storm names, an image and a box of quick facts appears for each storm. Clicking on a storm name takes visitors to that storm’s web page, where they will find stories and images about the human, economic and environmental impact of the storm.

For more on RENCI at ECU, see