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Preparing for the Worst

How NCEI Data Helps Model Hurricane Impacts

Stormy day on a beach with high wind blowing palm trees and surf high on sand.
Courtesy of Pixabay

Before and after a storm, NCEI scientists work hard at better preparing coastal communities for future tropical cyclones and hurricanes.

NCEI supports hurricane storm surge and flood modeling through the development of coastal digital elevation models (DEMs). A DEM is a representation of Earth’s solid surface that depicts land heights and water depths to visualize relief in coastal zones. NCEI DEMs integrate bathymetry (information on ocean floor depth) and topography (information on land surface height) in the coastal zones of the United States and in select international locations.

The shape and configuration of the coastline and the offshore, underwater slope affect the rise of sea level associated with a landfalling hurricane. This storm surge enables waves to extend farther inland relative to normal conditions, flooding low-lying coastal areas and altering the physical landscape. Having access to the most up-to-date depth and elevation data is critical for modeling and mapping experts to best determine the magnitude, timing, and extent of potential inundation.

In 2014, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a new national-scale DEM development framework was created at NCEI to more efficiently create standardized, seamless data products. It was designed to facilitate rapid, targeted updates to existing DEMs with the most recent depth and elevation data, ensuring that modelers and emergency managers have access to the most current, accurate data. Integrated bathymetric-topographic DEMs and offshore bathymetric DEMs developed by NCEI in this framework are available for download at the NOAA Office for Coastal Management Digital Coast Data Access Viewer.

Integrated bathymetric-topographic digital elevation model of Charleston, South Carolina. Courtesy of NOAA NCEI.

The DEM team at NCEI draws on its vast archive of data on the ocean depths (known as bathymetry data) collected by NOAA for navigation and ocean resource management, as well as data from other federal agencies—like the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and NASA, academia, and nonprofit organizations.

Other sources of coastal topography and ocean bathymetry data include the NOAA NCEI Bathymetry Viewer and NOAA Office for Coastal Management Digital Coast Data Access Viewer.

For more information, please visit the NCEI Coastal DEM webpage or contact