William & Mary

VIMS Researchers Take Tidal Predictions to the Streets

'It might not seem like much, but half a foot is the difference between water in your yard and in your living room.' -Harry Wang

  • Eye of Hurricane Isabel
    Eye of Hurricane Isabel  This close-up view of Hurricane Isabel was taken by one of the Expedition 7 crew members on board the International Space Station.  Photo courtesy of NASA
  • Hurrican Isabel
    Hurrican Isabel  Hurricane Isabel made landfall in North Carolina's Outer Banks on September 18, 2003 with winds of 105 mph. It passed through central Virginia and quickly moved into Pennsylvania.  
  • Gloucester Point, Virginia
    Gloucester Point, Virginia  Hurricane Isabel's storm surge peaked at about 9 feet on the James River, causing significant damage to homes and communities in its path.  
  • The VIMS Ferry Pier
    The VIMS Ferry Pier  Following Hurricane Isabel. Isabel caused about $1.85 billion in damages in Virginia.  Photo by Dave Malmquist
  • VIMS Administration Building
    VIMS Administration Building  Tropical Storm Ernesto brought maximum winds of 58 miles per hour and waves of 3 feet to the Chesapeake Bay. VIMS buoys at Gloucester Point and the Goodwin Islands collected data throughout the storm.  
  • Storm Models
    Storm Models  Storm-tide models work by feeding weather, water and elevation data into a network of grid cells that form a map of the forecast area. The models use physical equations to simulate the transfer of mass, heat, energy and momentum among the grid cells as the storm progresses.  
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Weather along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay can change overnight. One day you're enjoying warm sand between your toes and the fragrant hint of coconut in your SPF 45. The next day you're digging out your rain gear and hoping that the power will stay on.

Hurricanes and nor'easters are two bringers of bad weather to the bay. To visitors these storms mean big waves, strong undertows and disrupted vacations. But, to the tens of thousands who make their home on the shores of the bay, they are much more serious. Severe storms raise water levels, threatening their livelihoods and homes.

VIMS to the rescue. Aware of the potentially devastating impact of hurricanes and nor'easters to the bay's coastal residents, Harry Wang, professor of marine science, leads a mission to deliver timely and detailed predictions of storm tides, right down to street-level. Joining Wang are John Boon, Jian Shen, Kyoung-ho Cho, David Forrest, Leonidas Linardakis, Wenping Gong and Tao Shen.

Wang's team faces a daunting task that is made difficult by the countless creeks, coves and tributaries that form the Chesapeake Bay's 11,000-mile-plus shoreline. Depending on factors like wind speed and direction, rainfall amounts in a particular watershed, and tide levels, water levels during a storm can differ significantly along shorelines lying only a few tens of miles apart.

The team endures. They know that better information can help emergency managers alert individual neighborhoods about appropriate protective measures and possible evacuation during hurricanes and nor'easters. Like all of us, they have seen the tragic results of misinformation - or missing information - during a weather-related crisis. Avoiding similar tragedy in your own backyard is a strong incentive.

Wang estimates street-level storm-tide predictions along the Chesapeake Bay in five years. From anyone else, this might sound unreasonably optimistic. But when it comes to matters of the bay, VIMS delivers.