USGS prepares for Hurricane Dorian as it approaches Florida

USGS installing storm tide sensors
As Hurricane Dorian approaches, USGS field crews are now installing storm-tide sensors like this one deployed in North Carolina in advance of Hurricane Florence's landfall in 2018. (Jessica Cain, USGS)

With Hurricane Dorian projected to strike the Florida this weekend, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is busy installing a plethora of sensors and instruments along the U.S. coastline to gather data that could warn of storm surges and take proactive measures to protect property and residents in the storm’s path.

For starters, on Thursday August 29 and Friday August 30, the USGS is deploying 18 field scientists to install scientific instruments at more than 60 locations along the Florida coast between Jacksonville and West Palm Beach. Some instruments are designed to measure the height and intensity of the storm surge if Dorian affects Florida’s Atlantic coast, as predicted by the National Hurricane Center. Others will monitor water levels on inland water bodies; the field crews will gather data from them immediately after the storm has passed.

In Georgia, field scientists will install 62 measuring devices along the state’s low-lying coastline, should the hurricane produce higher-than-normal ocean waves well to the north of the storm.

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The USGS is installing storm tide sensors at 57 locations along Florida’s Atlantic coast and 50 along the Georgia coast. The teams are also deploying barometric pressure sensors, one within ten miles of every storm tide sensor; the two devices work together to correlate the storm’s intensity with wave heights. The crews also plan to deploy five clusters of wave height sensors on boardwalks in Flagler, Volusia, Brevard, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties. By recording wave heights along a line running from the beach to the dune peak and behind the dune, these transects help create detailed images of wave action.

The USGS’ network of storm tide sensors along portions of the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts can record water level and barometric pressure every 30 seconds to document storm surge crests as they make landfall. The sensors are housed in steel pipes a few inches wide and about a foot long. They are installed on bridges, piers, and other structures that have a good chance of surviving a hurricane’s storm surge. 

The USGS Streamgaging Network operates scientific instruments that record water levels and other key pieces of information on rivers and streams nationwide. During storms and floods, the USGS uses this network to provide near-real-time data about water levels to the National Weather Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others. 

When a major hurricane is projected to make a U.S. landfall, the USGS augments the network by installing special stream gauges called rapid deployment gauges, or RDGs, in areas where flooding is likely, but no permanent stream gauge exists. RDGs measure water levels and local weather data in areas susceptible to storm-tide flooding and transmit that information by satellite in near-real time for flood forecasting and emergency response. 

To prepare for Hurricane Dorian, field crews will install three RDGs along the Florida Atlantic coast and 12 in Georgia. If flooding does occur, USGS field crews will make real-time streamflow measurements to verify the stream gauges’ readings. After the storm passes, the crews will quickly replace any storm-damaged or lost gauges. During and right after hurricane flooding, these records help FEMA target emergency relief to the hardest-hit areas.

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