URI ocean engineers receive federal grant to improve prediction, protection from coastal storms

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KINGSTON, R.I., March 7, 2016 —University of Rhode Island ocean engineers have been studying for decades how rising sea levels and destructive storms are threatening the state’s coastline. Thanks to a federal grant, they—and researchers in the four other New England coastal states—can continue to explore ways to protect shorelines.


Rhode Island, through URI and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, is among five New England states that have received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coastal Management to study ways to improve storm prediction and protection. URI and CRMC received $110,000 of the $890,000 awarded.


The five-state project is divided into two major areas: forecasting and outreach and planning activities encouraging designs to protect the coast. Malcolm Spaulding, professor emeritus of ocean engineering at URI and founder of Spaulding Environmental Associates, will oversee the management of the regional forecasting effort. At URI, Reza Hashemi, an assistant professor of ocean engineering, is lead researcher on the high-resolution forecasting model for state waters.


“We are very pleased that we’ve been selected for an award in what has been a highly-competitive process,” says Spaulding. “We look forward to using high-resolution models that provide predictions of water levels and waves for the coastal communities.”


The results, he says, will help emergency staff and community and statewide planners respond to storms and make coasts more resilient.

Others participating are the University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine.


As part of its studies, the URI team will use a computer-based program called STORMTOOLS developed by Spaulding. The tool gives property owners and cities and towns a more complete understanding of flood risks. It uses graphics and satellite images to create maps that show water levels for 25-year, 50-year, and 100-year storms and sea-level rise of 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 feet. These maps have recently been adopted by Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council to help support design in state coastal waters.


Climate change will bring big changes to Rhode Island’s coastal communities in the coming decades. Scientists project sea levels to rise 3 to 5 feet in the state by 2100, and recent NOAA projections are as high as 7 feet, Spaulding says.


“Rhode Island is seeing increasing storm and flooding events as a result of climate change and sea level rise, and the Northeast is seeing this at a more intense rate than the rest of the country,” says Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. “It’s of the utmost importance that our cities and towns be prepared for these events, not only to know in advance where they need to place their emergency response infrastructure and personnel, but also to know how these storm events will impact their communities.”


Pictured above: Storm damage at Peggotty Beach at Scituate Harbor, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Malcolm Spaulding.