Research & Innovation

As Hurricane Season Intensifies, Stevens Experts Supply Forecasts, Insights and Solutions

Researchers address hurricanes, floods, storm surges, climate change

satellite image of hurricane

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season has already featured an intense early-season eastern Caribbean hurricane (Elsa) and a rare New England hurricane, Henri, bringing soaking rains and dangerous floods — and they won't be the last. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) forecasts 13 to 20 large storms between June and November, six to ten of them potentially hurricanes.

Stevens NYHOPS river flow visualization
Stevens' online river- and harbor-level forecasts update in real time

To help prepare, experts in Stevens' Davidson Laboratory model and forecast extreme weather events to warn the public of flood and surge events associated with hurricanes and large storms,.

“Most days, the first piece of information I check in the morning,” says Caleb Stratton, chief resilience officer for the city of Hoboken, of the Stevens Flood Advisory and NYHOPS systems, two free online monitoring and forecasting tools.

The media also frequently tap Stevens' expertise, including during Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Harvey.

And the university supplies New York City; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; New Jersey Transit; and the National Weather Service with data, as well.

Researcher Philip Orton is part of Stevens' effort to predict, prepare for and combat future sea-level rise and storm surges. Research he collaborated on to support the New York City Panel on Climate Change concludes that some low-lying areas of Queens and Brooklyn, for instance, may begin flooding monthly within 30 years.

“We are talking about flooded streets, homes, high-traffic expressways and boulevards, subways,” explains Orton. "The infrastructure of the city was not engineered to factor in either the sea rising or frequent flooding inland. That’s going to become a problem.”

Reza Marsooli, another Davidson Lab researcher, models river and coastal flooding, storm surges and wave hazards during periods of changing climate. With approximately 95 million Americans — nearly one-third of the U.S. population — residing in coastal regions, his work supplies the nation's cities and communities with key intelligence as planners work to build both physical defenses and emergency response plans.

Marsooli recently published findings concluding New York's Jamaica Bay will soon begin flooding much more frequently.

“The framework we used for this study can also be replicated," notes Marsooli, "to demonstrate how flooding in other regions will look by the end of the century, which will help mitigate risk and better protect communities.”

As the 2021 hurricane season intensifies, Orton and Marsooli answer some common questions about hurricanes, floods, storm surges and climate change.

Q&A with Philip Orton & Reza Marsooli: Extreme Weather

Q: Is the weather becoming more extreme?

A: Yes. A host of recent studies worldwide have confirmed that summers are indeed becoming hotter and rainier; storms are becoming stronger; and floods are becoming more frequent and stronger.

Professors Reza Marsooli and Philip Orton
Stevens researchers Reza Marsooli and Philip Orton

Q: Why is this happening?

A: The Earth’s base temperature has warmed by almost two degrees Fahrenheit during the past century alone. That doesn’t sound like much, but it has already been enough to melt and unlock huge quantities of glacial ice at Greenland, Antarctica and other locations.

All this extra meltwater empties directly into the world’s oceans, where it slowly rises against continents and islands. This sea-level rise, driven by a warming and expanding ocean, is one of the primary challenges created by global warming.

The warming atmosphere and ocean also produce increased tropical-region heat and humidity, which help birth and strengthen destructive storm systems such as hurricanes.

New Stevens research recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications has demonstrated how major regional hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy are significantly worsened by the human-driven effects of climate change. In the case of Sandy, the damage is estimated to have been perhaps $8 billion in total.

Q: How will this affect those living near coastlines?

A: If you live in a low-lying coastal area that occasionally flooded during storms in the past, prepare for much more frequent floods.

Coastal areas along the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States — from Florida to New England — will experience higher coastal flooding during storms in the near future. One study co-authored by Stevens researchers confirms that hurricane-induced flooding will continue to become more severe along both the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts over time due to the effects of climate change.

Q: How is Stevens helping prepare the tri-state region and the nation for hurricanes, storms and flood events?

A: Physical defenses and warning systems are regularly discussed, planned and tested in the Davidson Laboratory.

Map with squares
The Stevens Flood Advisory System forecasts storm surges

The Stevens Flood Advisory System (SFAS), a free real-time resource accessible to the public, produces flood forecasts for the New Jersey and Metro New York coastal region. Not only does SFAS provide a central forecast, but it also shows the uncertainty in a given forecast, helping to convey the potential high-end (worst-case) consequences.

Stevens has also operated the New Jersey Coastal Protection Technical Assistance Service since 1992, supporting efforts to cope with beach loss during strong storms. The university produces research on innovative approaches and technologies to protecting the coast such as so-called 'living shorelines' of natural materials including oyster reefs and coastal plantings.

Q: Do Stevens students also contribute to the university's resiliency work?

A: Yes. Stevens undergraduate and graduate students regularly participate in Stevens’ storm-surge modeling and adaptation research; conduct field research on beach replenishment along the Jersey Shore during summer; and engineer novel, more resilient types of architecture capable of withstanding stronger storms such as the award-winning SU+RE House, which took top prize first in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.