A storm surge is a rise in sea level that occurs during tropical cyclones, intense storms also known as typhoons or hurricanes. The storms produce strong winds that push the water into shore, which can lead to flooding. This makes storm surges very dangerous for coastal regions.
Tropical cyclones are circular storms characterized by high winds and heavy rainfall. They form over warm, tropical oceans. The center of a cyclone is called the eye. The eye is surrounded by a ring of clouds called the eye wall, where the winds are strongest. Surrounding the eye wall are clouds that spiral outward, called spiraling rain bands.
A storm surge is primarily caused by the relationship between the winds and the ocean’s surface. The water level rises where the winds are strongest. In addition, water is pushed in the direction the winds are blowing. The rotation of the Earth causes winds to move toward the right in the Northern Hemisphere and toward the left in the Southern Hemisphere—a phenomenon known as the Coriolis effect. If a cyclone develops in the Northern Hemisphere, the surge will be largest in the right-forward part of the storm. In the Southern Hemisphere, the surge will be largest in the left-forward part of the cyclone.
Another factor contributing to storm surge is atmospheric pressure. Atmospheric pressure is the force exerted by the weight of air in the Earth’s atmosphere. The pressure is higher at the edges of a cyclone than it is at the center. This pushes down the water in the outer parts of the storm, causing the water to bulge at the eye and eye wall—where the winds have helped add to the rise in sea level.
More factors contribute to the strength of a storm surge as the dome of water comes ashore. The water level can reach as high as 10 meters (33 feet) if the storm surge happens at the same time as high tide. The slope of the land just off the coast also plays a part: Water will more easily flood a shallow coast than a steep one.
Storm Surges and Coastal Communities
Tropical cyclones, and the storm surges they generate, are a serious hazard for coastal areas in tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Developing in the late summer months (July-August in the Northern Hemisphere, January-February in the Southern Hemisphere), when the waters are warmest, tropical cyclones hit regions as far apart as the Gulf Coast of the United States, northwestern Australia and Bangladesh.
When a cyclone hits land, the accompanying storm surge will most often flood the surrounding coastal area. Flooding is responsible for most deaths and economic damage associated with tropical cyclone landfalls. When a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900, the storm surge was responsible for approximately 6,000 deaths. In East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the Bhola cyclone killed as many as 500,000 people in 1970. The storm surge from the Bhola cyclone was estimated to be 10 meters (33 feet) high.
Improvements in forecasting cyclones and issuing early warnings to the public have become indispensable as both coastal populations and the occurrence of extreme storms continue to rise.
However, even sophisticated meteorology and storm warnings do not always protect against devastating storm surges. Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge flooded the U.S. coastal communities of Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the urban areas of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi, in 2005. The flooding killed more than 1,500 people in New Orleans alone, and caused millions of dollars in damage. Homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals were destroyed.
Still, improvements in forecasting greatly benefit regions like the Chesapeake Bay, in the U.S. states of Maryland and Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay suffered severe damage from Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Emergency managers failed to predict Isabel’s extreme storm surges, which caused widespread flooding in the region.
Now, meteorologists and emergency managers monitor the storms forming in the southeast more closely. New computer simulations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) examined the effects of a Category 4 hurricane (131-155 mph winds) landing in the U.S. states of North or South Carolina, hundreds of miles south of the Chesapeake. The simulation showed the hurricane could produce storm surges as high as 5 or 6 meters (18 or 20 feet) along the Chesapeake shoreline. FEMA used the latest version of its computerized SLOSH model to predict the surge. An acronym for "Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes,'' the SLOSH program is used by the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center.
The Maryland Emergency Management Agency is now working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local officials to turn the SLOSH simulation data into updated maps for emergency planning. The new maps show how far inland flooding could stretch under certain conditions. With this new forecasting data, emergency planners and citizens will be better prepared for storm surges.
Government agencies can arrange for residents to evacuate. Some residents don’t have cars and may require transportation to safer ground. Others may not have a place to go and require emergency shelter. Many residents, such as those in hospitals and prisons, are especially at risk.
Advance warning of a strong storm surge also allows homes and businesses to prepare for damage. Business owners can relocate expensive machinery or tools to safe areas, and homeowners can board up windows to protect against strong floods or move furniture and other valuables to a second story.
Coastal residents can reduce the damage done by a storm surge by protecting local wetlands. Wetlands, such as swamps, estuaries, and mud flats, act as sponges for tropical cyclones. As the cyclone makes landfall, the marshy land and plants absorb the water and the energy of the storm surge. Silt and swamp vegetation prevent the most intense part of the storm surge from hitting homes and businesses.
Estuaries are such an important part of our natural environment that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the National Estuary Program in 1987. This program seeks to improve the quality of estuaries to protect important wildlife habitats, public water supplies, and coastal regions affected by severe storms.
The development of coastal wetlands for housing, industry, or agriculture reduces the natural barrier that wetlands provide. Communities can protect themselves against storm surges by maintaining healthy coastal wetland ecosystems.
Different Names, Same Storm
Hurricanes and typhoons are the same as cycloneswhich name is used depends on what part of the world the storm is in. The storms are called hurricanes in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Pacific Ocean, or the South Pacific Ocean. They are called typhoons in the Northwest Pacific Ocean.
The Saffir-Simpson Scale
Just before the 2010 hurricane season, scientists removed storm surge from the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, a five-category system that describes the strength of the storms. The problem, scientists said, is that the size of a storm surge doesn't always match up with the strength of a hurricane. It was the first change to the scale in about a decade.
Storm surge forecasts will still be part of hurricane advisories.
If a cyclone makes landfall while the tide is rising, the tide and the cyclone can create an especially high storm surge. This is sometimes referred to as a "storm tide."
to join with someone or something.
negatively or in a bad way.
the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
Army Corps of Engineers
government organization concerned with construction projects.
layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.
force per unit area exerted by the mass of the atmosphere as gravity pulls it to Earth.
(1970) storm that caused widespread damage and death in Bangladesh and India.
the U.S. states of North Carolina and South Carolina.
large, shallow estuary of the Susquehanna and other rivers that flow through the U.S. states of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York and the capital of Washington, D.C., before emptying in the Atlantic Ocean.
the result of Earth's rotation on weather patterns and ocean currents. The Coriolis effect makes storms swirl clockwise in the Southern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere.
weather system that rotates around a center of low pressure and includes thunderstorms and rain. Usually, hurricanes refer to cyclones that form over the Atlantic Ocean.
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
having to do with money.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
U.S. government organization whose mission is to "protect human health and the environment."
mouth of a river where the river's current meets the sea's tide.
to leave or remove from a dangerous place.
to force or pressure.
center of a tropical cyclone, characterized by a roughly circular area of light winds and rain-free skies.
ring of thunderstorms that surrounds a hurricane's eye.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
U.S. Homeland Security agency responsible for coordinating response and aid distribution after natural and manmade disasters.
overflow of a body of water onto land.
to predict, especially the weather.
to create or begin.
land in the United States surrounding the Gulf of Mexico.
environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.
danger or risk.
water level that has risen as a result of the moon's gravitational pull on the Earth.
tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour. Hurricanes are the same thing as typhoons, but usually located in the Atlantic Ocean region.
(2003) storm that caused damage to the U.S. states of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia.
2005 storm that was one of the deadliest in U.S. history.
weather pattern characterized by low air pressure, usually as a result of warming. Low-pressure systems are often associated with storms.
mechanical appliances or tools used in manufacturing.
symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.
wetland area usually covered by a shallow layer of seawater or freshwater.
person who studies patterns and changes in Earth's atmosphere.
study of weather and atmosphere.
area left bare by receding lake or tidal waters.
half of the Earth between the North Pole and the Equator.
an unusual act or occurrence.
action taken to avoid a negative outcome or event.
base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.
beach, or where a body of water meets land.
small sediment particles.
copy or reenactment.
(Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) model simulation program used to determine which areas must be evacuated due to a storm surge.
knowledgeable or complex.
half of the Earth between the South Pole and the Equator.
severe weather indicating a disturbed state of the atmosphere resulting from uplifted air.
abnormal rise in sea level accompanying a hurricane or other intense storm. Also called a storm tide.
bordering the tropics, just north of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn.
land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.
degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.
movement of people or goods from one place to another.
existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour. Typhoons are the same thing as hurricanes, but usually located in the Pacific or Indian Ocean region.
developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.
all the plant life of a specific place.
amount of available fresh water for drinking, hygiene, and industrial and agricultural use.
state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.
area of land covered by shallow water or saturated by water.
movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.