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Georgia Sea Grant Uses New Smartphone App to Map King Tide Flood

Using technology to prepare for sea level rise

By Christopher James, University of Georgia Office of Public Service and Outreach

It was exactly the kind of event the Sea Level Rise app was built for and Georgia Sea Grant was on site to take advantage of the new technology. When the king tide struck Tybee Island on the morning of Oct. 28, some of the most dramatic scenes weren’t on the well-known beach outside Savannah but inland, in neighborhoods a few blocks away.

“We saw today where the stormwater infrastructure is and what a key role that plays in these events,” said Mark Risse, director of Georgia Sea Grant and UGA Marine Extension, a unit of the UGA Office of Public Service and Outreach.

“Some of the areas more inland might be where we see worse flooding and that goes against intuition that says it’s going to happen right on the edge where the ocean is meeting the land. It’s not common sense predicting where these things can happen all the time. If we can document these things, maybe we can go back and correct them.”

Risse led a group of Georgia Sea Grant and UGA Marine Extension educators on Tybee who were using the smartphone app to document nuisance flooding related to unusually high tides brought on by the alignment of the moon, sun and Earth. 

Over time, “citizen scientists” could be trained to use the app to record where and when flooding is happening via GPS coordinates and pinpoint trouble spots, Risse said. The concept is similar to traffic apps like Waze that show accidents and congestion in real time.

Not much data has been collected on these localized floods, which is where the app could fill a significant gap.

“That kind of information hasn’t been collected by scientists,” said Shana Jones, head of the Georgia Sea Grant Legal Program and planning and environmental services manager at the University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government. “The modeling scientists do related to flooding is much more 100-year floods — the big floods.”

Scientists have only recently begun modeling the smaller floods, which can have a significant impact on local communities.

Building up a database over time could reap big benefits. Being able to analyze this kind of flooding at a granular level will allow planners to assess how effective storm drain modifications or other improvements are. It also allows cities to prioritize areas where repeated flooding occurs.

Historically, Georgia Sea Grant has engaged volunteers to collect data on a number of projects, including water-quality testing.

The Sea Level Rise app, created by Norfolk, Virginia-based Wetlands Watch and developer Concursive, is being pilot tested up and down the East Coast, including by Sea Grant programs in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

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