Down in the Flood with GPS

March 31, 2015  - By
Image from, using Google Earth.

Image showing projected Florida flooding, from, using Google Earth with NASA data. Image from, using Google Earth.

Surveyors, prepare to get your feet wet. Global warming is about to hit you in the job list. By 2050, a majority of U.S. coastal areas are likely to be threatened by 30 or more days of flooding each year. This according to a December report in Earth’s Future, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

[Parenthetically, the next issue of Survey Scene, in May, will be written by an actual geodesist. Until then, you have to put up with GPS World’s editor in chief — by no means a surveyor. Patience.]

The study used data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tide gauges to show the annual rate of coastal floods has accelerated in recent years. These are now five to 10 times more likely today than 50 years ago — and getting worse.

Mitigation decisions could range from retreating further inland to coastal fortification or to a combination of “green” infrastructure using both natural resources such as dunes and wetland, along with “gray” man-made infrastructure such as sea walls and redesigned storm water systems. And that’s not even mentioning such basics as redrawing property lines. Any way you look at it, surveyors are going to be involved.

“As communities across the country become increasingly vulnerable to water inundation and flooding, effective risk management is going to become more heavily reliant on environmental data and analysis,” said Holly Bamford, NOAA acting assistant secretary for conservation and management.

The recent U.S. Hydro 2015 conference in National Harbor, Maryland — an area particularly called out for vulnerability to the oncoming floods — naturally found a lot to talk about in this and related areas of interest for surveyors, with session tracks including: Effects of Climate Change on our Oceans and Waterways; Coastal and Ocean Mapping Initiatives; Advances in Unmanned System Technology, and several more.

Some of the papers presented that GPS World found of interest, and hopes to present or encapsulate in some form in the near future, include:

  • Resolving Systematic GPS Interference from Aeronautical Distance Measuring Equipment during Mission-Critical Shallow Water Multibeam Surveys
  • GPS Water-Level Buoy for Hydropgraphic Survey Operations
  • Examining the Uncertainty Associated with the Establishmenbt of an Ellipsoid to Chart Datum Separation Surface Using GNSS Buoys
  • Comparison of Horizontal and Vertical Resolvable Resolution between Repetitive Multibeam Surveys Using Different Kinematic GNSS Methods.

And those just came from the poster sessions. In the technical sessions, Jack Riley from the NOAA Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Systems and Technology Program presented a GPS Buoy Water Level Uncertainty Case Study.

Data from on High

Since you can’t get at a coastline from all angles — with any degree of stability, that is — data from overhead, sometimes far overhead, proves invaluable. Such as that provided by aerial digital imagery, LiDAR, and increasingly, satellites.

Because digital aerial images are already in electronic form, they can quickly be processed and made available to users. Most of the special cameras in use nowadays provide direct georeferencing capability, which allows camera position and orientation to be determined automatically using GPS and inertial measurement equipment. An entire mini-industry has grown up around integrating aerial data with that taken from ground surveys.

Light detection and ranging (LiDAR), a remote sensing system, became available for commercial topographic mapping in 1993. An airborne laser scanning system paired with a kinematic GPS receiver and an inertial navigation system can calculate and produce a highly accurate spot elevation. It is possible to obtain point densities that would likely take months to collect using traditional ground survey methods. The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) is currently implementing LiDAR into their shoreline mapping production process.

Our Record So Far

Coverage of these salty issues has been sparse in GPS World and associated newsletters, but not entirely absent. In 2006, the May issue featured “GPS Buoys Nautical Measurement.”

In 2008, Richard Langley edited an Innovation column on “Tsunami Detection by GPS,” featuring work for which co-author Attila Komjathy eventually won a GPS World Leadership Award in 2013. And in 2010, Langley brought forth an Innovation column on “Monitoring Water Level with GNSS.”

And way, way back in 2005, we published “Abreast of the Waves: Open-Sea Sensor to Measure Height and Direction.” This was prior to our digital era, so until we can scan a paper copy into here, we’ll simply give the abstract: “Accurate and timely information on open-sea wave conditions can help in preventing large-scale maritime disasters. This article describes a new, low-cost Global Positioning System (GPS)-based sensor that measures wave height with an accuracy of several centimeters and direction with an accuracy of 5 degrees. The receiver is mounted on a buoy, and a high-pass filter is used to extract the movement of the buoy and thus minimize GPS positioning errors. The data provided by the sensor is intended to improve wave prediction models. In addition, since this GPS-based sensor transmits only analyzed ocean wave data, it reduces the volume of data and leads to lower operating and acquisition costs. The article describes the concept of the GPS-based wave sensor, algorithms that are used for filtering and extracting wave data, as well as the results of open-sea trials.”

So there’s more to come. Watch this space. In the meantime, we leave you with Bob Dylan’s prophetic words, circa 1967.

Well, it’s sugar for sugar
And salt for salt
If you go down in the flood
It’s gonna be your own fault.

About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.

2 Comments on "Down in the Flood with GPS"

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  1. All I say is that I’m glad us surveyors are looking at the Effects of Climate Change on our Oceans and Waterways because nobody else seems to be paying much attention.. thank you..