USGS iCoast – Did the Coast Change?

Posted by Michelle Howard
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hurricane season starts again this June. Do you know what happens to our coasts after these extreme storms? The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has launched a new crowdsourcing application called “iCoast – Did the Coast Change?” to show you these coastal changes from extreme storms.

iCoast allows citizen scientists to identify changes to the coast by comparing aerial photographs taken before and after storms.

Crowdsourced data from iCoast will help USGS improve predictive models of coastal change and educate the public about the vulnerability of coastal communities to extreme storms.

Aerial Imagery of the Coast Before and After Storms
Since 1995, the USGS has collected more than 140,000 aerial photographs of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts after 24 hurricanes and other extreme storms. Just for Hurricane Sandy alone, more than 9,000 aerial photographs were taken a week after the storm.

USGS acquires high-resolution oblique aerial photography after extreme storms and compares them to imagery collected before the storms. These aerial photographs are taken at a low altitude to capture a small area of the coast. USGS collects aerial imagery to ground truth and improve the USGS coastal change probability models.

“Computers cannot yet automatically identify damages and geomorphic changes to the coast from the oblique aerial photographs,” said Sophia B. Liu, USGS Mendenhall Postdoc Fellow. “Human intelligence is still needed to finish the job.”

Without the personnel or capacity to analyze all the photographs taken after every storm, the USGS decided to launch a citizen science project, asking citizens to help identify changes to the coast while also gaining knowledge about coastal hazards.


USGS determines probabilities of hurricane-induced coastal change for the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of our Nation to better inform evacuation, response, preparedness, and mitigation efforts.


The Power of Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing
Analyzing the aerial photographs to identify storm damage will help coastal scientists refine their predictive models of coastal erosion and damage caused by extreme storms. Currently, these mathematical models are derived from dune elevation and predicted wave action during storms. Adding the human observations will allow the scientists to validate the models and to provide better predictions of damage before storms occur.

“After an event like Hurricane Sandy there is always a great interest in our photographs,” said Barbara Poore, USGS Research Geographer. “The USGS iCoast team hopes that people will learn about coastal change and about their personal vulnerabilities to extreme storms.”

Integrating Citizen Science into the Model
Research on storm-induced coastal change hazards provides the data and modeling capabilities to allow the USGS to identify areas of the U.S. coastline that are likely to experience extreme and potentially hazardous erosion during hurricanes or other extreme storms.

To assess coastal vulnerability to extreme storms, the USGS has developed a Storm-Impact Scale to produce Coastal Change Probability estimates.

Hurricane-induced water levels, due to both storm surge and waves, are compared to beach and dune elevations to determine the probabilities of these types of coastal change processes:
 

  •     Beach Erosion occurs when wave runup is confined to the beach.
  •     Dune Erosion occurs when the base or toe of the dune is eroded by waves and storm surge.
  •     Overwash occurs when sand is transported and deposited landward over the beach and dune by waves and storm surge.
  •     Inundation occurs when the beach and dune are completely and continuously submerged by storm surge and wave runup.


Benefits of the USGS iCoast Project
There are scientific, technological, and societal benefits to the iCoast project. The crowdsourced data from iCoast will enhance predictive modeling of coastal erosion to better inform emergency managers, planners, and residents of coastal vulnerabilities in their regions.

Citizen science projects like iCoast serve the cause of Open Government and Open Data, by sharing USGS aerial imagery with the public. iCoast can also be a great tool for marine science educators to create interactive and fun lessons related to coastal hazards.

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