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$1.5 Million Grant to Predict Sea-Level Rise & Flooding from Hurricanes

September 27, 2011, Volume 58, No. 03


In an effort to better understand sea-level rise and flooding from hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has awarded a three-year, $1.5 million grant to a research team led by Benjamin Horton. The study aims to provide predictive models and reports that can be used both by environmental scientists and coastal communities.

Dr. Horton, an associate professor in the School of Arts and Sciences’ department of earth and environmental science, is the director of Penn’s Sea Level Research Laboratory.

“Future flooding of the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts will depend upon both sea-level rise and the intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones, each of which will be affected by climate change,” Dr. Horton said. “We will employ new interdisciplinary approaches to bring about a marked improvement in the reliability of predictions of such flooding.”

The NOAA-backed project draws upon research Dr. Horton published earlier this year with lab members and collaborators from Pennsylvania State University, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Finland’s Aalto University School of Engineering and Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The researchers produced a landmark study that resulted in the first reconstruction of sea-level rise during the past 2,000 years.

Microscopic fossils known as foraminifera, taken from a North Carolina salt marsh, aided the reconstruction. The new study will expand to Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia and both coasts of Florida to examine regional variability of sea-level rise.

“The foundation of current models for sea-level projections is data from the 20th century, but we’ve started to be able to push further back in time,” Dr. Horton said. “This allows us to have a better understanding of the past relationship between climate and sea level and to make better predictions about the future.”

In the case of flooding arising from hurricanes, the researchers will combine regional sea-level-rise projections with hurricane simulations and storm-surge models. This will enable them to map coastal flooding for the current climate and the best- and worst-case climate scenarios of the 21st century.

This spring, the researchers will begin to meet with coastal managers of the six sites to get their input about how such projections might be best put to use. Especially in the wake of Hurricane Irene, Dr. Horton believes they will be most interested in flooding scenarios.

“We’re taking our scientific products into local communities,” Dr. Horton said. “We will be providing information and products that will help them plan and prepare.”   

Almanac - September 27, 2011, Volume 58, No. 03