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January 2017 Issue

Resilience Through Research:
Innovations for Tackling Coastal Risk

By Jane McKee Smith, Ph.D.
Senior Research Scientist
U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center

In the 86 years since the first experiments were conducted at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Vicksburg, Mississippi, campus, the variety of research and development missions has grown tremendously. With seven laboratories and field offices across the United States and abroad, ERDC is tasked with a combination of military and civil works missions that cover diverse fields of engineering and science that require a unique combination of expertise.

Through the growth and diversification, ERDC has kept focus on problem solving. As new challenges present themselves, ERDC has added new facilities, equipment and expertise to become a highly adaptable public research organization. Most importantly, we have built relationships across communities of expertise within government, academia and industry, and are continuously learning through collaboration with peers around the world.

The interaction of seven laboratories with national and international partners creates a collaborative landscape to not only advance scientific understanding, but to also develop innovative tools that solve real-world problems and save lives.

North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study (NACCS)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) recently completed the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study, an extensive two-year study to address coastal storm and flood risk to vulnerable populations, property, ecosystems and infrastructure affected by Hurricane Sandy in the North Atlantic region.

ERDC supported the Corps’ North Atlantic Division by generating storm simulations (wind, waves and storm surge) to assess coastal risk for the North Atlantic coast from Virginia to Maine. The study builds on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and brings to bear the latest scientific information to support federal, state, local and tribal planners.

The tremendous amount of data and data products the study produced will serve coastal engineering and coastal management communities in the North Atlantic for at least the next decade to improve understanding of changing flood risk and provide tools to help those communities prepare for the future.

Coastal Hazard System
A key tool ERDC is developing to serve the increasingly large amount of data available to help planners, engineers and coastal communities evaluate risk is the Coastal Hazard System.

To accurately assess risk in the planning and design of projects, in flood mapping and in emergency response, the Corps and our partner agencies need storm process measurements, supplemented with extensive high-fidelity modeling.

The Coastal Hazard System serves as a nationwide archival and mining system for coastal storm hazard data. It stores comprehensive, high-fidelity, storm-response computer modeling results including winds, waves, surge, total water levels and currents as well as field measurements of these quantities. Data can be easily accessed, mined, plotted and downloaded through a user-friendly Web interface. The Coastal Hazards System also includes comprehensive statistical analyses to assess risk. Simulations supporting the NACCS are housed in the Coastal Hazards System.

The consistent, comprehensive, high-fidelity information included in the Coastal Hazards System is accessible by federal, state and local governments and private entities to support future work, saving time and cost.

USACE is responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of federally authorized shore protection projects. To solve the complex problem of modeling and measuring the costs and benefits of protecting existing infrastructure against erosion, inundation and wave attack damages, researchers at ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory and the U.S. Army Engineer Institute for Water Resources developed the combined engineering and economic model Beach-fx.

Beach-fx provides a comprehensive framework for evaluating the physical performance and economic benefits and costs of shore protection projects. This modeling software runs on desktop computers and employs a combination of meteorology, coastal engineering and economic evaluations in an event-based Monte Carlo life-cycle simulation.

Previously, shore protection was evaluated on a frequency-based framework. Beach-fx uses an event-driven approach nested in a Geographic Information System (GIS) framework. The software’s database of plausible storms evaluates shoreline change and economic impacts and tracks individual damage drivers (inundation, wave-attack and erosion) to allow for evaluation of alternative plans and responses.

Additionally, Beach-fx illustrates shoreline change and resulting damages graphically, which makes evaluating and communicating findings to stakeholders easier.

Beach-fx predicts morphology evolution and the associated damages caused by coastal storms, as well as the costs of shore protection alternatives, integrating risk and uncertainty across multiple project life cycles. It has already been employed along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and in Florida and Alaska. Beach-fx was named one of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Game Changers in 2016.

Coastal Storm Modeling System
Also developed at ERDC’s Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory is the Coastal Storm Modeling System (CSTORM), a comprehensive system of models used to simulate coastal storms to accurately assess risk to coastal communities. CSTORM integrates high-fidelity modeling to simulate wind, waves, water levels for tropical and extratropical storms, and coastal response, including erosion, breaching and accretion.

The technology has been applied to numerous projects over the last few years, including storm modeling and flood mapping support for the Hurricane Katrina Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, the North Carolina Floodplain Mapping Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the NACCS.

Models within CSTORM are compliant with the Earth System Modeling Framework, which allows coupling between the models, creating a plug-and-play capability. Additionally, the system is designed to integrate new capabilities, such as hydrology and environmental models for future applications.

Resilient Engineering with Nature
We are increasingly looking to integrate natural infrastructure with engineering to reduce risk both along our coasts and inland.

Analysis conducted after Hurricane Sandy shows that the Army Corps’ beach nourishment projects in the states of New York and New Jersey helped prevent an estimated $1.3 billion in damages. With the flood protection dunes offer, it is important that we improve our understanding of how dunes grow and erode. Our Field Research Facility in Duck, North Carolina, collects laser measurements of dune morphology and the wind, wave and current forcing that drive erosion and accretion processes. In the laboratory at ERDC, studies are ongoing to evaluate the role of vegetation in reducing dune erosion. These studies will help us better understand environmental factors that cause dunes to grow and erode and inform ongoing development of numerical modeling of dune processes. Better dune models allow us to improve evaluation of risk reduction through nature-based infrastructure.

Working on the upstream area of our responsibility, ERDC is conducting research including overtopping and erosion analysis, transient seepage studies and internal erosion modeling to better understand the risks of natural processes to our flood infrastructure. Additionally, we are researching wave dissipation in wetlands to better understand how wetland configurations can reduce wave energy—a synergy between the Corps’ goals to reduce risk to the public and protect and enhance our natural environment.

Empowering Our Partners
The rate at which new data are gathered, and the sophistication of that data, is growing exponentially. With every lesson learned in the lab and in the field, we gain valuable insight that broadens and deepens our understanding of coastal processes. ERDC strives to develop tools that make this growing wealth of knowledge readily applicable and understandable. This empowers our partners in our shared goals of reducing risk to the public and preserving our natural environment.

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