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Woods Hole scientists develop new devices to track coastal flooding

One of WHOI's new water-level sensors is deployed at its dock in Woods Hole.
Photo by Brian Engles
One of WHOI's new water-level sensors is deployed at its dock in Woods Hole.

Sea levels along the northeastern United States, including levels along Cape Cod, rose by about two to three inches between 2022 and 2023.

That jump is about 10 times faster than the background rate of sea level rise over the past three decades, meaning the rate of sea level rise is increasing.

That’s according to Chris Piecuch, an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Piecuch and other WHOI researchers say they want to know more about how that increasing rate will affect flooding on a local scale.

WHOI has developed new water-level sensors that will provide towns with localized data that could potentially be used to mitigate flood risk. WHOI has deployed the new devices at their Woods Hole dock as well as Chatham Fish Pier.

Associate scientist Sarah Das said the sensors will empower coastal communities.

“Where are we experiencing problems? Where might we want more data? How does a rainfall event come in versus extra river runoff, versus winds coming from the east or the west? All these scientific questions which really build into communities understanding why they’re having flooding in certain places and why it’s changing,” Das said.

The sensors are low-cost, something Das said will be important for getting them out to more towns eventually.

The prototype costs about $300 dollars to make. Research associate Levi Gorrell said they were “able to keep the water-level sensors low cost by using off-the-shelf parts and keeping it very simple. The sensor is really just designed to measure the distance to the water surface and send that information back to the cloud. That’s all it does.”

Prototypes of the sensors are working alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) tide gauge network.

Piecuch said that federal network only monitors sea level rise along a small amount of the state’s coastline.

He said researchers have good measurements for sea level rise, but they don’t have as much data for coastal flood events.

“We know just by driving around Falmouth the last couple months - you could have a flood in one neighborhood but not in another, this part of the street is inundated but not that part. You get all this really granular detail that isn’t really captured by the current network of tide gauges,” Piecuch said.

Das said the new gear will help towns understand the where, why, and how of flooding.

“We talk a lot about climate change and sea level rise, but really where sea level rise impacts people, infrastructure, economies, and everything across communities is where coastal flooding occurs."

Brian Engles is an author, a Cape Cod local, and a producer for Morning Edition.