OSU researchers to help coastal towns cope with natural hazards

August 16, 2018

By Tiffany Woods 

Researchers aim to help towns prepare for and survive a tsunami.

Researchers aim to help towns prepare for and survive a tsunami. (Photo by Tiffany Woods)

Researchers at Oregon State University have launched a 3.5-year project funded by Oregon Sea Grant that aims to help coastal towns become more resilient to storms, earthquakes, tsunamis and a rising sea. Oregon Sea Grant is providing nearly $900,000 in funding.

Launched in July, the project is led by Peter Ruggiero, a coastal geomorphologist in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

It aims to:

  • use a computer model to simulate how climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis, population growth, land use, and hypothetical policy scenarios might affect communities’ abilities to weather coastal hazards;
  • help policymakers understand the impacts of their decisions;
  • result in a better understanding of options, costs and benefits for adapting to coastal hazards; and
  • develop an interactive Web portal that will provide decision-makers and the public with information on how to increase coastal resilience.
Researchers will look at how land use impacts towns’ abilities to weather coastal hazards.

Researchers will look at how land use impacts towns’ abilities to weather coastal hazards. (Photo by Tiffany Woods)

Other faculty on the project are:

  • John Bolte, an expert in computer simulations in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences;
  • Dan Cox, an engineer in OSU’s College of Engineering;
  • Steven Dundas, an economist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences;
  • Jenna Tilt, a land-use planning specialist in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; and
  • Pat Corcoran, a coastal hazards specialist with Oregon Sea Grant and the OSU Extension Service.

The project will conclude in 2022.

Estuary flooding may be more extreme than previously thought

OSU engineer is studying estuary flooding in the Coos Bay estuary (pictured here) and the Tillamook Bay estuary.

OSU engineer is studying estuary flooding in the Coos Bay estuary (pictured here) and the Tillamook Bay estuary.

New research suggests that intense storms could increase the impact of flooding in coastal estuaries. As more water is forced into the estuary, site-specific geographic features will cause more inundation in some parts of the estuary than others, contrary to the uniform rise that was previously expected.

Estuaries are mixing pots between rivers and the ocean – and also tend to be hotspots for human development. Tumultuous offshore waves that break during winter storms force water up into the estuary, causing it to inundate surrounding areas.

David Hill, a coastal engineer at Oregon State University, is studying how to more effectively measure the effects of flooding in estuaries along the Oregon coast.

“In Oregon, estuaries really represent a concentration of a great number of things,” Hill explained. “A concentration of infrastructure and a concentration of commerce. If you look where the population is, it’s all near estuaries.”

Historically, coastal managers have simply drawn a uniform circle around an estuary on a map to estimate flooding, and raised or lowered the line depending on predicted changes in water level. This method, although easy, neglects the complicated physics that take place in such environments.

Hill used historical storm data and future climate predictions to simulate the effect of storms on the Tillamook Bay estuary. His detailed models discovered that not all parts of an estuary are created equal.

“One thing that we found is that inside a large body of water like Tillamook Bay, there can be noticeable differences from one location to another. So the water levels in the whole bay are not the same. The northern part of the bay is more susceptible to higher water levels than the southern part.”

This new information is causing state flood maps to be updated and flood zones reevaluated. Hill says he is looking forward to working directly with coastal communities to find out what information is most useful in their planning.

Waves breaking offshore force water up into the estuary and cause flooding.

Waves breaking offshore force water up into the estuary and cause flooding.

“A big part of this project is wanting to actually connect with organizations within our study sites. They’re the ones that have the best idea of what kind of information is valuable to them and that they need to do short term and long term planning.”

The project is only six months into a two-year cycle funding and already two papers are close to being published; one paper is in press with the Journal of Coastal Research, and the second is in re-review with another journal.

While Hill is focused on the impact to coastal infrastructure, OSU ecologist Sally Hacker is researching what effect inundation will have on eelgrass habitat in the estuaries.

“Eelgrass is a critical habitat for commercially important fish and crabs,” Hacker explained. “We will be using models to project the extent of eelgrass under future sea level elevations.”

Hacker will incorporate Hill’s data into her models to better predict ecosystem changes along the coast.

Scientists say it is likely that storm events will become more frequent and more powerful in the future. Understanding the economic and ecological impacts of flooding will help coastal communities adapt in an ever-changing climate.

Learn more:


Science Pub to explore the future of oceans

CORVALLIS – The effects of global climate change and associated threats to the oceans are the topic for the May 12 edition of Science Pub Corvallis, presented at the Majestic Theatre, 115 SW 2nd St., from 6-8 pm. Admission to the public talk is free.

Andrew Thurber, a post-doctoral fellow in Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS), will lead the discussion in an informal presentation where questions are welcomed.

The Earth’s oceans face multiple climate-related stresses: warming temperatures, low oxygen, acidification and a lack of biological productivity. As marine ecosystems respond, the consequences could be felt directly by about 2 billion people whose lives depend on ocean fisheries and other resources. Those are among the results reported by an international team of 29 scientists who studied the influence of climate change on marine systems from the poles to the Equator.

Thurber, who holds a Ph.D from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, helped to conceive the study and was a co-author of the report that appeared in October 2013 in the journal PLOS Biology. “What is really sobering about these findings is that they don’t even include other impacts to the world’s oceans such as sea level rise, pollution, over-fishing, and increasing storm intensity and frequency,” he says. “All of these could compound the problem significantly.”

Thurber will discuss the study and actions needed to avert the most significant changes.  His research focuses on deep-sea ecosystems, particularly the role of invertebrates in recycling nutrients and sequestering carbon. He has conducted experiments under seasonal sea ice in Antarctica and explored communities that live around methane seeps near New Zealand and Costa Rica.

Science Pub Corvallis is sponsored by OSU’s TERRA magazine

Learn more …

Sea Grant survey: Coastal professionals, managers concerned about climate change

High surf at Fishing RockThe American public may be divided over whether climate is changing, but coastal managers and elected officials in nine states say they see the change happening—and believe their communities will need to adapt.

That’s one finding from a NOAA Sea Grant research project, led by Oregon Sea Grant and involving multiple other Sea Grant programs, which surveyed coastal leaders in selected parts of the nation’s Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf and Great Lakes coasts, as well as Hawaii.

Three quarters of coastal professionals surveyed – and 70% of all participants – said they believe that the climate in their area is changing—a marked contrast to results of some national surveys of the broader American public which have found diverse and even polarized views about climate change and global warming.

The Sea Grant survey was developed to understand what coastal/resource professionals and elected officials think about climate change, where their communities stand in planning for climate adaptation and what kinds of information they need, said project leader Joe Cone, assistant director of Oregon Sea Grant.  Sea Grant programs in Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois-Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington—states that represent most of NOAA’s coastal regions—took part, administering the survey at various times between January 2012 and November 2013.

Learn more:

Oregon Sea Grant publishes booklet on drinking-water systems in coastal Oregon

The following publication is available as a free download from Oregon Sea Grant.

The print version may be purchased from Oregon Sea Grant’s e-commerce store.

Planning for Resilience in Oregon’s Coastal Drinking Water Systems

On Oregon’s rugged coast, large-scale infrastructure for public utilities is virtually nonexistent, meaning that drinking water must be obtained through small systems, domestic wells, or springs. While a portion of Oregon’s coastal population utilizes a domestic or private source, the vast majority of residents rely on small public systems for their drinking water. Unfortunately, risks associated with small drinking-water systems are not widely documented nor well understood.

Planning for Resilience in Oregon’s Coastal Drinking Water Systems is the result of case studies of 13 drinking-water sytems in coastal Oregon. It examines risks to these systems including infrastructure issues, contamination, climate change, earthquakes, and tsunamis, and explores actions to increase resilience, such as planning, backup supply, source water protection, infrastructure improvements, and communication. The publication will be of value to coastal water system managers, city planners, and coastal residents interested in water supply issues.


Help document this week’s “king tide” at the coast

If you’re planning to be on the Oregon Coast this week, grab your camera and help document the latest “king” tide.

King tides are natural events, caused by predictable astronomical factors that generate tides higher than most high tides. By understanding which areas are most affected by king tides, scientists, emergency planners and local officials can get a better idea which places might also be susceptible to high water generated by increasing wave heights, winter storms and a rising sea level.

Since 2011, the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development has invited photographers to help visually document how high the water reaches during king tides  -such as the ones forecast daily for the Oregon coast through this Thursday, Nov. 15. Oregon joins Australia, British Columbia, Washington and the San Francisco Bay area in the documentary effort.

To learn more about the King Tide Photo Project – including where, when and how to photograph the tides,  what your photos should show and how to submit them to the project’s photo gallery – visit the Oregon King Tide Photo Project website.

Good king tide photos will show water levels adjacent to a fixed feature like a piling, seawall or bridge abutment. Including such features allow observers to track how the actual water levels vary over time. f Good photos also must include information about the location, the date and time the photo was taken and which direction the photographer was facing. Two photos taken from the same spot, one during the king tide and the other at a typical high tide, are also very helpful in highlighting these water events.

If you’d like to take part, but miss this month’s event, additional king tides are predicted for December 12-14th, 2012 and January 10-12th, 2013.

Learn more:

Sea-level information workshops planned for south, north coast

A pair of workshops on sea-level hazards are coming up Oct. 24 and 29 on Oregon’s south and north coast to help local emergency managers, planners and the interested public learn more about sea-level risks and what can be done about them.

Sea-level rise, storm surges and tsunamis will all be covered in the two workshops, organized by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coastal Management program. The purposes is to explore how learning more about the natural hazards posed by sea levels might affect local communities and their decisions: What science tells us, how that information can be used, how communities might respond and what  tools and resources they need.

The first workshop takes place from 1-4 pm Oct. 24 at the Red Lion Hotel, 1313 N. Bayshore Drive, Coos Bay. The second will be held at the same time Oct. 29, at Tillamook Bay Community College rooms 2140215, 4301 Third St., Tillamook.

Both meetings will include presentations on:

  • The science behind global and level sea level rise (Phil Mote, Oregon Climate Change Research Institute)
  • Ocean, atmospheric and tectonic influences on sea levels (Jonathan Allan, Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries
  • The effects of changing sea levels on estuaries and wetlands (speaker TBD).

After a question-and-answer session on the science of sea level hazards, a panel of local elected officials, planners, public works and emergency managers will informally discuss how this information can be used in their day-to-day work, what community resources are at risks and what decisions they are making that could be affected by the information.

Both meetings are free and open to the public. For more information, contact either of the workshop coordinators: Oregon Sea Grant’s coastal hazards specialist, Patrick Corcoran, or Jeff Weber, Oregon Coastal Zone Management Program.

NOAA, FEMA urge “Be a Force of Nature”

Be a Force of Nature - Pledge to Prepare“Be a Force of Nature” is the theme of the first-ever National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, starting this Sunday (Earth Day) and continuing through April 28.

The campaign is a joint effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Daily themes will  target public awareness about severe weather hazards and encourage people to get prepared:

  • Monday: Know Your Risk
  • Tuesday: Make a Plan
  • Wednesday: Build a Kit
  • Thursday: Get a NOAA Weather Radio
  • Friday: Be an example for others to follow

Full details – including downloadable posters, media PSAs and emergency preparedness kit checklists – can be found on NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation Website.

While the effort focuses on hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophic storms less common in the Pacific Northwest, Oregonians can still learn from the campaign, according to Patrick Corcoran, Oregon Sea Grant’s coastal hazards specialist.

In this region, coastal storms generally occur from November to March – but recent trends have shown earlier dates for the first storm and later dates for the last storm of the season. And offshore buoys have measured increasingly higher waves during winter storms over the past 30 years. A result has been more impacts by storms on people and infrastructure, from homes to highways.

“Some homes on cliff-backed beaches have found themselves precariously closer to the edge,” said Corcoran. “A few have fallen into the sea. Other properties in lower areas with dune-backed beaches are experiencing larger storm waves, overtopping of shore protection structures, and an overall increase in erosion.”

Corcoran pointed out that although the Northwest is generally spared from tornadoes and hurricane-strength storms, they can happen – and the region is also prone to seismic disasters including earthquakes and tsunamis.

“The steps NOAA recommends to prepare for catastrophic storms make good sense for the types of disasters we in the Northwest face, too,” he said.

Learn more: