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Collaborative Climate Adaptation Planning for Urban Coastal Flooding

PIs:  Philip Orton, Alan Blumberg, Peter Rowe (New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium), Tanya Marione-Stanton (Jersey City Department of City Planning); Partners:  Sergey Vinogradov, Naomi Hsu, Steve Eberbach, Jeff Wenger

Funding agency:  NOAA Sea Grant

Project period:  July 2013 – January 2015 (completed)


Photograph of Philip Orton presenting at City Hall, at one of the public meetings where Jersey City Planners and Stevens Researchers presented options for reducing the chances of storm surge flooding.

Coastal cities across the country are weighing their options for adapting to rising floods, yet there is limited quantitative information available to help make these decisions. This project was a collaboration between coastal flooding scientists and Jersey City planners to develop and test several options for adapting the region’s urban coasts to flooding and sea level rise. Jersey City (JC) is the second-most populous city in NJ, yet has 43% of its land within the new FEMA 100-year flood zones. We leveraged pre-existing storm surge modeling and flood zone mapping to quantify the performance of a set of storm surge protection measures for Jersey City.

Outcomes and outputs from the research included: (1) regional flood zone maps that account for future sea level rise and storm climatology changes, (2) model-based map animations of how floodwaters enter JC to help understand how the pathways can be blocked, (3) a report of a collaboratively determined set of coastal adaptation options, and their performance with sea level rise, (4) an outreach workshop where we presented the project’s results to additional regional stakeholders, and (5) a transferable, peer reviewed and published adaptation planning and evaluation framework. Lastly, and still an ongoing process, it is our goal to help Jersey City, and possibly additional area cities, to implement climate change planning policies to adapt to coastal flooding.

This framework can also be utilized for many other U.S. coastal regions – anywhere that hydrodynamic models are already being used to simulate storm surges or map flood zones. FEMA has embarked on an ambitious effort to re-evaluate the nation’s coastal flood zone maps, and many of these regional efforts are utilizing these models. Many areas also have storm surge forecast models in place that can be similarly used for adaptation studies.

Project Results Summary

Computer storm surge simulations were used to map the effect of projected sea level rise on 100-year flood zones and to show the water pathways that flooded Jersey City during Hurricane Sandy, all useful information for planning measures that can prevent flooding.

Animation of modeled Hurricane Sandy flooding entering downtown Jersey City

Street-valley resolving animation of modeled Hurricane Sandy flooding entering downtown Jersey City (Blumberg et al. submitted). Color shading indicates floodwater depths over ground (legend on bottom right).

In several collaborative meetings, a broad set of realistic coastal protection measures and broad strategies were developed. Here is one example, a surge barrier that helps block a storm surge but could also be closed at low tide to create a rainwater basin for helping reduce the more frequent problem of rainfall flooding at high tide.

Illustration of one of 27 flood protection components, a surge barrier at the Tidewater Basin, south of downtown Jersey City

Illustration of one of 27 flood protection components, a surge barrier at Morris Canal Basin (aka Tidewater Basin), south of downtown Jersey City

This image comes from a partner project by Michael Baker Jr. Inc, and the report for that project is available here and includes both visualizations of the adaptation strategies, as well as a scoping study of what would be needed to conduct a benefit-cost analysis for the plans.

The storm surge modeling was then used to evaluate the efficacy of each adaptation measure, as well as how sea level rise and climate change will affect performance.  A city-wide adaptation scenario that combines several of the individual adaptation measures is found to protect most areas of the city from all storm events tested, ranging from a severe nor’easter that occurred in 1992, to Hurricane Sandy plus 31” of sea level rise (a high-end projection for 2055).


Flood elevation model results for Hurricane Sandy Control (left), the full adaptation scenario (center), and the difference. In the right‐side panel, white areas have flooding in the control run, and do not have flooding with the adaptation scenario (flooding is prevented).

Hurricanes of a higher flood level than Sandy are possible, though unlikely – based on our replication of the FEMA flood mapping study (with added sea level rise), the 14-foot protection elevation could be overtopped by storms today, with an annual probability of 0.3%, or by storms after 31” of sea level rise, with an annual probability of 1%. A partial adaptation plan of land elevation increases around planned projects leads to prevention of flooding for most neighborhoods for the #2 and #3 largest flood events of the past century, the 1992 nor’easter and Hurricane Donna, but does not provide protection against Hurricane Sandy, and only keeps certain neighborhoods dry for the other flood events (e.g. Donna) when we consider 31” of sea level rise.

Read the full report here.

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Quantifying the Value and Communicating the Protective Services of Nature-Based Flood Adaptation

PIs:  Alan Blumberg, Philip Orton, Eric Sanderson (Wildlife Conservation Society), Mark Becker (Columbia CIESIN; 1961-2014), Kytt MacManus (Columbia CIESIN)

Funding agency:  NOAA Coastal and Ocean Climate Applications (COCA)

Project period:  January 2014 – May 2016


This project has ended, and has a new webpage summarizing its results: http://AdaptMap.info

Wetlands are frequently mentioned by city planners and the general public for their protective benefits against storm surges.  Unfortunately, these important ecosystems are still disappearing in spite of this qualitative knowledge of their benefits.  Municipalities across the nation are weighing the value of coastal wetlands for flood protection and the many ecosystem services they provide, yet there is limited quantitative information available to help make these decisions.

We are conducting a study of historic and potential future green shorelines in Jamaica Bay, New York City.  The primary output of the study is a “next-generation” sea level rise viewer that demonstrates the dynamically modeled effects of green shorelines on flood hazard zones.  The tool also provides information on damages from flooding as well as cost-benefit analyses for green shoreline adaptations for the bay.  The landscape of Jamaica Bay in prior centuries is also being mapped and floods modeled, to learn more about the resilience of past shorelines.  A set of three future living shoreline adaptation scenarios is being collaboratively developed in a workshop with city planners, resource managers, and our science team.


Coastal storms are among the world’s most costly and deadly disasters, with strong winds, floodwater inundation, and coastal erosion capable of damaging and disabling infrastructure. Increased damage from storm surge flooding is one of the most certain impacts of climate change, with the potential for intensified storms, increased rainfall, and with storm surges coming on top of rising sea levels. Sea level rise is expected to accelerate over the 21st Century, primarily due to increasing expansion of warming seawater and accelerated melting of land-based ice sheets. A conservative estimate of 30-60cm for New York City (NYC) by 2080 will change a 100-year flood event to a 30-year flood event, and “rapid ice-melt” scenarios call for over a meter of sea level rise over this period [Horton et al. 2010].

Hundreds of thousands of NYC residents in Jamaica Bay’s watershed live on land within range of a 5 m hurricane storm tide (Figure 1), and Hurricane Sandy (3.5 m above mean sea level) flooded some of these neighborhoods. Hurricanes made direct hits on NYC four times over the last 400 years including 1693, 1788, 1821, and 1893 and will likely do so again [Scileppi and Donnelly, 2007]. Moreover, sea level rise of 1 m will mean that a severe extra-tropical storm (a “nor’easter”) will lead to flooding levels nearly as bad as Sandy or the historic hurricanes – the worst nor’easters (e.g. 1992) have an annual probability of occurrence of one in twenty and cause maximum water levels of about 2.0-2.5 m [Orton et al. 2012].

Figure 1:  NYC map showing population and density in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZ) below 5 m above mean sea level (Columbia CIESIN; http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/gpw/ lecz.jsp). Hurricane Sandy’s flooding was extensive in neighborhoods surrounding Jamaica Bay.

Figure 1: NYC map showing population and density in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZ) below 5 m above mean sea level (Columbia CIESIN; http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/gpw/lecz.jsp). Hurricane Sandy’s flooding was extensive in neighborhoods surrounding Jamaica Bay.

In past centuries, a large expanse of tidal wetlands, oyster beds, riparian systems, barrier beaches, and shallow water depths in and around Jamaica Bay likely helped shield Southeast Brooklyn and South Queens from storm surge flooding. Today those wetlands are depleted, the oysters gone, the riparian systems and barrier beaches partially paved over, and the depths of Jamaica Bay altered by dredging and land fill. A successful experimental Corps of Engineers program that has rebuilt a small portion of the tidal wetland islands in Jamaica Bay from 2009-2012 raises the possibility that these losses can be reversed, but the cost of rebuilding the losses from 1974-1999 alone has been estimated to be $310 million at ~$500/acre [S. Zahn, NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, pers. comm, 2012].

Nationwide, living shorelines of many types are still disappearing, in spite of society’s qualitative knowledge of their benefits. In recent decades, the decline of tidal wetlands has continued [Dahl, 2006]. Much like wetlands, shellfish reefs also can provide protective benefits from storm-driven waves and flooding, due to their rough surfaces and added frictional effect on rapidly moving waters. Unfortunately, wild oyster biomass in U.S. estuaries has declined by 88 percent over the past century [Zu Ermgassen et al. 2012]. These changes are likely only partially a result of sea level rise – both wetlands and shellfish reefs are to a varying extent ecosystem engineers and can grow upward with sea level rise, though the maximum rates at which they can rise are uncertain. Other issues that continue to wipe out wetlands include eutrophication due to excessive nutrient inputs [Deegan et al. 2012], a particularly difficult problem to solve in urban estuaries, typically requiring billions of dollars in grey infrastructure [e.g., NYC-DEP, 2010; Taylor, 2010].

Quantifying the economic values of these protective services for socioeconomic analyses is a crucial step for conserving these beneficial coastal ecosystems [NRC, 2005]. NYC and many other municipalities across the nation are weighing restoration or protection of living shoreline ecosystems, yet there is limited quantitative information available to help make these decisions. An old rule of thumb holds that 14.5 km of wetlands reduces a storm surge by 1 meter, though this is based on an observational study of historical Louisiana hurricanes that actually showed variations of over a factor of three in the surge reductions [USACE, 1963]. More recent research has shown that the attenuation of storm surge by marshes actually varies even more than a factor of three, and wetlands sometimes do not attenuate storm surges at all. The attenuation by wetlands depends on many details including direction and duration of the storm’s winds and waves, and the coastal topography and bathymetry around the wetlands [Resio and Westerink, 2008]. It is becoming accepted that the protective benefits are larger for storms with winds that blow onshore only for a short duration [Gedan et al., 2010; Resio and Westerink, 2008]. This is an important factor for the NYC region, because historical hurricanes making landfall in this region have moved rapidly at speeds of 45-110 km h-1 [Orton et al. 2012], often passing in only a matter of hours, so coastal wetlands may have more protective potential than in other places where hurricanes often move more slowly.

A key opportunity exists to leverage existing model-based flood zone mapping and risk assessment work, and use them to help quantify the value of living shorelines and map their flood protection services. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has embarked on an ambitious effort to re-evaluate the nation’s coastal flood hazard for the purpose of updating all the coastal flood zone maps. Many of these regional efforts are utilizing hydrodynamic modeling of storm surges, and FEMA is amassing and producing detailed and publically-available datasets for areas such as New York, New Jersey, Delaware Bay and Philadelphia, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Florida, and Florida’s Big Bend. Using hydrodynamic models and accounting for simple frictional influences of land-cover data, it is possible to use these data with storm surge models to quantify the influence of coastal wetlands and shellfish on the particularly sensitive and expensive issue of flooding.

Here, research is proposed with an overriding goal of developing methods to quantify the economic value and communicate the protective services of living shorelines across the United States. The primary scientific objectives include:

  • Map the extent of Jamaica Bay wetlands, beaches, mud flats, and other ecosystem features and the bathymetric depth profile for the late 1800s and modern-day periods
  • Quantify the flood resilience of historical versus present-day coastal zone using model runs of the Stevens Estuarine and Coastal Ocean Model (sECOM) that is used within the Stevens Storm Surge Warning System (http://stevens.edu/SSWS).
  • Work with decision-makers and natural resource managers to develop three realistic future living shoreline scenario options that can reduce storm surge flood elevations
  • Perform a cost-benefit analysis of future living shoreline landscape scenarios based on construction cost analyses and a full risk assessment for storm-driven flooding
  • Give both decision-makers and the general public an online tool that helps them obtain an improved, quantitative understanding of the role that living shorelines like wetlands and shellfish reefs can have on coastal flooding. The tool will enable users to explore future flood zones, and to select future living shoreline adaptation scenarios to view their influence on these flood zones.


Dahl, T. E. (2006), Status and trends of wetlands in the conterminous United States 1998 to 2004, 112 pp., Washington, D.C.

Deegan, L. A., D. S. Johnson, R. S. Warren, B. J. Peterson, J. W. Fleeger, S. Fagherazzi, and W. M. Wollheim (2012), Coastal eutrophication as a driver of salt marsh loss, Nature, 490(7420), 388-392.

DEP (2007), Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan, Volume 1, edited, p. 128pp, New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), New York.

Gedan, K. B., M. L. Kirwan, E. Wolanski, E. B. Barbier, and B. R. Silliman (2010), The present and future role of coastal wetland vegetation in protecting shorelines: answering recent challenges to the paradigm, Climatic Change, 1-23.

Horton, R., V. Gornitz, M. Bowman, and R. Blake (2010), Chapter 3: Climate observations and projections, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1196(1), 41-62, DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05314.x.

NRC (2005), Valuing ecosystem services: Toward better environmental decision-making., National Academy Press, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.

NYC-DEP (2010), NYC Green Infrastructure Plan: A sustainable plan for clean waterways, 143 pp, New York City.

Orton, P., N. Georgas, A. Blumberg, and J. Pullen (2012), Detailed Modeling of Recent Severe Storm Tides in Estuaries of the New York City Region, J. Geophys. Res., 117, C09030, DOI: 10.1029/2012JC008220.

Resio, D. T., and J. J. Westerink (2008), Modeling the physics of storm surges, Physics Today, 61, 33.

Scileppi, E., and J. P. Donnelly (2007), Sedimentary evidence of hurricane strikes in western Long Island, New York, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 8(6), DOI: 10.1029/2006GC001463.

Taylor, D. I. (2010), The Boston Harbor Project, and large decreases in loadings of eutrophication-related materials to Boston Harbor, Marine pollution bulletin, 60(4), 609-619.

USACE (1963), Interim Survey Report, Morgan City, Louisiana and Vicinity, in serial no. 63, edited, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers District, New Orleans, LA.

Zu Ermgassen, P. S. E., et al. (2012), Historical ecology with real numbers: past and present extent and biomass of an imperilled estuarine habitat, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1742), 3393-3400.

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Hudson River floodplain mapping with surge, rain and sea level rise

The Hudson River Flood Hazard Decision Support System – Accurate Modeling of Flood Zones for Combined Sea Level Rise, Storm Surge, and Rain

PIs:  Philip Orton, Kytt MacManus (Columbia CIESIN), Alan Blumberg, Mark Becker (Columbia CIESIN; 1961-2014), Upmanu Lall (Columbia University)

Funding agency:  New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)

Project period:  May 2013 – April 2015


Under this project we created an easy to use, free, online mapping tool that lets users assess the impacts of flood inundation posed by sea level rise, storm surge and rain events on communities bordering the lower Hudson River.  The study area for this project is the coastal zone area for all counties adjacent to the Hudson River from the southern border of Westchester County to the Federal Dam at Troy.  Flood simulations merge all sources of flooding water with a single model, so they do not rely on linear superposition of tides, surge and tributary flooding, which is inaccurate along the Hudson [Orton et al. 2012].

The resulting 5-year to 1000-year flood zone maps are applied to newly-created social and critical infrastructure vulnerability layers, to measure and map flood risk for the Hudson River coastal region.  The customized mapping tool allows users to select a particular region of interest and predicted flood scenarios and then visualize the impact on community resources.  Users can download maps and summary statistics on structures, populations, and critical facilities affected by specific predicted flood events.

The mapping tool along with additional project-related information are hosted by the Center for International Earth Information Network (CIESIN), and is available following this link.  This website and the featured mapping tool will be a valuable resource for public officials, resource managers, and others looking to assess risk and evaluate the cost/benefit of proposed climate change mitigation options.

Resulting Publications

Orton, P. M., Hall, T. M., Talke, S., Blumberg, A. F., Georgas, N., & Vinogradov, S. (2016). A Validated Tropical-Extratropical Flood Hazard Assessment for New York Harbor. J. Geophys. Res., 121. doi: 10.1002/ 2016JC011679. unformatted PDFweb

Orton, P., F. Conticello, F. Cioffi, T. Hall, N. Georgas, U. Lall, and A. Blumberg (submitted, 4/28/2017), Hazard assessment from storm tides, rainfall and sea level rise on a tidal river estuary, Natural Hazards.  Email me to request an advance copy.


Orton, P., N. Georgas, A. Blumberg, and J. Pullen, 2012. Detailed Modeling of Recent Severe Storm Tides in Estuaries of the New York City Region, J. Geophys. Res., 117(C9), doi:10.1029/2012JC008220.  web | PDF

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