LSU graduate student and professor develop storm surge database

LSU graduate student and professor develop storm surge database
Weather Talk

POSTED: Thursday, July 19, 2012 - 7:00am

UPDATED: Thursday, July 19, 2012 - 7:04am

Storm surges, which occur as sea water is pushed up against a shoreline by hurricane winds, are often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane. The Gulf of Mexico coastline is especially vulnerable to storm surge disasters. Based upon the risk of hurricane impacts in this region, two LSU researchers set out to synthesize historically available data on all notable storm surges that hit the Gulf Coast since 1880, resulting in SURGEDAT, the first comprehensive storm surge database for the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Barry D. Keim, professor and graduate director of LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology and Louisiana state climatologist, and graduate student “Hurricane” Hal F. Needham pulled from 28 federal government sources including the National Hurricane Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, numerous academic publications and more than 3,000 pages of newspaper to create SURGEDAT.

“Over the last century, storm surge has caused substantially more deaths in the U.S. and beyond than hurricane winds or flooding rains,” Keim said.

Where extreme tropical cyclone events can claim lives, destroy natural wildlife habitats and cost billions of dollars in damage, a database of past storm surges would permit researchers to better gauge risks and plan for infrastructures that promote resilience of local communities.

“When you look at this on a global scale, and the amount of these huge surge events that affect major cities like New Orleans and Houston, it’s a big issue,” Needham said.

While a previously generated hurricane information database called HURDAT offers a collection of information on hurricane tracks and intensities in the Gulf Coast region, SURGEDAT is a novel database that uses highly credible historical data to identify the location and height of maximum storm surge levels associated with both mild and extreme tropical storm events. SURGEDAT provides information on past storm surges in a user friendly format, a visual and interactive map freely available online at

Most storm surge research is based upon computer models that predict surge heights based on several storm-related and external variables. These include, for example, maximum wind speeds, the size and forward speed of the storm and offshore water depth. However, SURGEDAT was the first surge database project to be built around historical observations.

“When we started this research in 2008, this approach was completely unique,” Needham said. “Modeling is very useful, but you need to validate it with what’s happened historically. That is what we are trying to do here.”
These historical observations may help improve storm surge modelers’ forecasts of future storm surges and potential damages caused by high tropical storm waters.

When research on SURGEDAT was published in the International Journal of Climatology in 2011, the database already contained information on location and height of peak storm surge for 195 surge events from 1880 to 2011. The project has now expanded beyond the Gulf Coast, incorporating hundreds of sources to generate a global dataset and map, and is already providing surprising insights into storm surge climatology and the relationship between hurricane landfall, storm intensity and storm surge levels.

For example, the database has blown away the stereotype that wind speed relates directly to storm surge level. Keim and Needham found that some tropical storms that produce only moderate wind speeds according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale can produce unexpected levels of peak storm surge due to their large and slow-moving nature.

The database may also help researchers better predict and prevent surge disasters in the future, as Keim and Needham plan future research to analyze the relationships between hurricane characteristics and storm surge heights.

“We’re currently seeking international partners to assist us in building the database in places other than the U.S.,” Keim said.

As a part of the project, Needham maintains a blog providing information related to storm surge climatology and discussing storm surge history and forecasts in promoting public awareness in the U.S. Gulf Coast and worldwide. It can be viewed at  

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