CITIZEN SCIENTISTS HELP CATCH THE KING
Crowdsourcing project to track tide in its second year
Joe Bouchard first started adapting to sea level rise in 2000, when he was the commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk. No one was focusing on it, but he had no choice, he said — it was already affecting the base’s infrastructure. Since then, he’s worked to educate the community, trying to get residents more engaged.
Nearly two decades later, he says Hampton Roads’ attitude toward flooding and sea level rise is significantly different. The perfect example? The annual Catch the King event, he said.
Hundreds of residents from
all over the region braved a cold, windy afternoon Saturday to map how far inland one of the year’s highest astronomical tides reached.
The king tide, the highest of the year, offers a glimpse at what the region will look like as sea level rise accelerates in coming decades — with more streets regularly becoming inundated and front yards turning into ponds.
The issue is bad now, and it’s going to get much worse, Bouchard said. Hampton Roads is facing the “perfect storm,” with sea levels rising, the ground sinking and the Gulf Stream slowing.
Bouchard led a group of volunteers to map areas around Beach Garden Park in Virginia Beach, a spot that was missed during last year’s event. Among the group was Joon Kim, who just relocated from Washington to coastal Virginia. He ultimately picked a home in Chic’s Beach rather than Ghent because he learned the old Norfolk community floods regularly.
“That area is sinking pretty fast,” he said.
He said he’s participating in Catch the King because he believes hard data on flooding is will help local governments act faster.
Bouchard didn’t expect the area to be too exciting, because it almost always remains dry. But at high tide, around 1 p.m., water swamped Holly Road, making some drivers find another entrance to the park. Using the Sea Level Rise app on their phones, volunteers recorded data with just a few clicks.
New data in previously unmapped areas can help improve flooding forecasting models, like those designed by Derek Loftis and others at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
When the king tide peaked at Anderson Park in downtown Newport News about 11:30 a.m., Loftis began dropping virtual breadcrumbs along the James River shoreline. To do so, he had to step over seaweed and sponges, miniature liquor bottles, drink cans and plastic bottles, sandals and candy wrappers that had washed up high on the beach by the previous night’s tide.
Like other tides, king tides come in pairs, with one a little higher. Saturday morning’s tide was supposed to be the higher of the two, but its counterpart Friday night had an unexpected reach as easterly winds drove the water level up by about half a foot, defying forecasts. By morning, the wind had shifted, blowing in from the west at a brisk 15 mph and pushing water away from the mouth of the James.
“In fact,” Loftis said, “on Tuesday some of the earliest forecasts were showing water level here to be about 2 to 2½ feet higher than ultimately we saw today. But it arrived about eight hours earlier.”
Loftis is one of the three main organizers of Catch the King in Hampton Roads, along with Skip Stiles of Wetlands Watch and former Virginian-Pilot report David Mayfield.
About 350 people had registered to track the king tide this year, compared with about 700 last year. But Loftis said that number doesn’t accurately account for students who registered as one classroom, or volunteers who are mapping but hadn’t registered. Many students throughout the region are participating in a year-round flood mapping program, a new feature of Catch the King. More than 140 classrooms already have registered for the initiative, which was started by WHRO.
This year’s turnout might not match last year’s, as Saturday’s winds and cold drizzle could have put off some volunteers. But Milyn King, a glass artist in Hampton, wasn’t dissuaded by the weather or content to map just one location. With her husband, Stephen, an Air Force retiree, she estimates they hit between 15 and 20 sites in her city and neighboring Newport News, including Anderson Park.
She shrugged off the brisk pace. “It’s a few hours of the day,” King said. “Think of it as selling Girl Scout cookies: If you went door-to-door delivering Girl Scout cookies, you’d probably be getting in and out of the car the same amount of time.
“It’s really not that onerous — to get in and out of the car, walk a few paces, take a photograph, make some notes, drop some locator points, get back in the car and drive.”
She considers it time well spent. “I just think it’s a very important issue,” said King. “It’s an issue that doesn’t go away and it’s something that I can do without a large investment in education or a large investment in equipment. I’m simply giving my time and some walking and some attention to detail. And I can provide some data for what I consider to be a worthy cause.”
It also allows her to do something concrete as Hampton Roads faces an uncertain future because of sea level rise.
“The land is sinking, the water is rising, the water temperatures are changing, wind patterns are changing — everything is changing,” King said. “So everything feels a little out of control. But this one thing I can do: I can control the events of this one day. I can collect data that may be helpful.”
Derek Loftis from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a Catch the King organizer, measures the water levelat Anderson Park in Newport News.
Tammie Organski takes measurements using the Sea Rise app near Anderson Park Organski is the ArcGIS manager for the city of Newport News and helps VIMS with the sea level rise mapping.