Prediction of Peak Water Levels during Tropical Cyclones with Deep Learning

Storm-driven flooding is a severe hazard for coastal communities and regions. Computational models can predict the combined effects of tides, winds, and flooding due to tropical cyclones, including in real-time, but requirements for the models’ runtime make it challenging to consider simulations of the full range of storm uncertainty. To address this problem, researchers have developed neural networks, trained on libraries of storm surge simulations, to predict ensembles of coastal flooding in seconds. However, existing neural networks do not consider the interaction between storm surge and astronomical tides nor storms of any duration. Moreover, they are trained on datasets tailored to represent only extreme conditions. We aim to develop a neural network to predict the peak total water levels for any storm at specific locations along the North Carolina coast.

In this research, we implemented a neural network to predict peak values for total water level (tides and storm surge) at multiple stations, considering astronomical tides and storm tracks of any duration as inputs. To create the training library, we simulated 1,813 synthetic tropical cyclones based on historical data in the North Atlantic Ocean, with a specific focus on storms that affect North Carolina. These simulations used a full-physics hydrodynamic model with variable spatial resolution of about 50 m near the coast. The outputs were downscaled to grayscale images with a higher and constant resolution of 15 m, enhancing the flood predictions by considering small-scale topographic features, and then used as training data for the neural network. The many-to-one deep learning model predicts a single peak total water level in time at multiple locations in space using time series of the offshore astronomical tide and track parameters as inputs. We used the model to make probabilistic predictions of peak total water levels for observed and perturbed tracks of several historical storms that affected North Carolina.

We showed that the neural network performed well (with errors ranging from 8 to 43 cm) in predicting peak total water levels at nine locations in North Carolina. We applied the neural network to make probabilistic predictions of peak total water levels for observed and perturbed tracks of historical storms. For each storm, the neural network predicted at nine stations for 101 storm scenarios (the true/historical storm and 100 perturbations) in less than 10 seconds. The performance for the observed historical storms was similar to those obtained in process-based simulations, but with a significant gain in computational runtime.

TA Cuevas López (2024). “Prediction of Peak Water Levels during Tropical Cyclones with Deep Learning,” North Carolina State University.

News: Oceans and Human Health Center

2024/03/19 – NCSU Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering
CCEE faculty to advance understanding of toxic algae blooms, protect human health as part of new NSF, NIEHS Center at NC State


Obenour will lead a project with Dietrich and Natalie Nelson (Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering) focused on the development of models to predict the transport of cyanotoxins — toxins produced by cyanobacteria released in algae blooms — in coastal environments. The models will focus on coastal North Carolina, especially the estuaries and sounds where freshwaters mix with saline waters. With the models, researchers will evaluate where cyanotoxins may collect and where they may originate. They will also evaluate scenarios of future climate, such as how changes in temperature, river flows, and sea levels may affect the transport of cyanotoxin.

According to Obenour, “the research will protect public health by identifying cyanotoxin hotspots and by informing management actions to reduce cyanotoxin risks in the future.”

2024/02/28 – NCSU College of Sciences
NC State Receives $6.9 Million From NSF, NIEHS to Fund New Oceans and Human Health Center


NC C-CAPE will carry out three research projects. The goal of the first project is to understand the dynamics of harmful algal blooms and learn more about the presence and distribution of microcystin — a liver toxin — across the Pamlico-Albemarle Sound System, the country’s largest lagoonal estuary. They will then link spatiotemporal patterns to the contamination of seafood. The second project will define how microcystin mixtures influence mechanisms of liver toxicity in regulatory-relevant mammalian models and at-risk human populations. In the third project, researchers will work to predict microcystin distributions in water and seafood based on various environmental controls — and assess exposure risk in a changing climate. They will do so by integrating diverse data sets and coastal circulation modeling within a probabilistic modeling framework.

North Carolina Center for Coastal Algae, People, and Environment

The NC C-CAPE: North Carolina Center for Coastal Algae, People, and Environment will investigate the health effects of various microcystin (MC) mixtures, and it will elucidate links between environmental and climatic drivers and harmful algal bloom (HAB) dynamics, MC congener composition, and toxin contamination in oysters and blue crabs. We will determine and the health effects of MC-mixtures on hepatic toxicity, NAFLD and hepatocellular carcinoma in model systems and humans. The Center’s Community Engagement Core will use the principles of data justice to address HAB exposure and prevention, where community members are experts, rather than objects of research, and have the capacity to conduct critical and systemic inquiry into their own lived experiences. The Administrative Core will provide efficient and effective fiscal and scientific leadership and promote interactions and collaborations across all Center components and beyond. Project 1 will advance our understanding of HAB dynamics and MC contamination in seafood, combining state-of-the-art in situ observing technologies and targeted field surveys. In addition, experimental work will elucidate trophic transfer of toxins in oysters and blue crabs. Project 2 will define how MC mixtures influence mechanisms of liver toxicity and resulting risk of adverse health outcomes in regulatory-relevant mammalian models as well as at-risk human populations. Project 3 will integrate highly diverse data sets and coastal circulation modeling within a probabilistic (Bayesian) modeling framework to elucidate environmental controls on MC distribution in water and seafood and assess MC exposure risk in a changing climate. NC C-CAPE will provide significant insight to guide efforts to implement effective monitoring approaches, inform guideline values for safe consumption of water and seafood, deliver predictive tools to assess emergent and future toxin exposure risk, and will leverage community engagement initiatives to fill data gaps and improve oceans and human health.

A Schnetzer, SM Belcher, BB Cutts, DR Obenour, T Ben-Horin, JC Dietrich, C Hoyo, NG Nelson, R Paerl. “North Carolina Center for Coastal Algae, People, and Environment (NC C-CAPE).National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Centers for Oceans and Human Health 4: Impacts of Climate Change on Oceans and Great Lakes, 2024/02/01 to 2029/01/31, $6,913,382 (Dietrich: $467,482).

Jack selected for Climate Leaders Program

CCHT undergraduate researcher Jack Voight was selected for the 2024 cohort of the KIETS Climate Leaders Program. KIETS offers programming about climate change and adaptation, and the cohort of student/faculty teams will work with their internship partners to develop solutions that mitigate and adapt to the challenges of climate change. Read more about the program in the KIETS announcement.

Congrats to Jack!

Enhancing Coastal Resilience through Participatory Transformation of Barrier Islands

Barrier-island communities face flooding due to rising sea levels and stronger storms, and typical adaptations (protect, accommodate, retreat) may not keep up with increasing risks. Communities are now considering extreme adaptations, such as allowing an island section to ‘return to nature’ by removing roadways and other infrastructure. But these extreme adaptations transform the natural processes of and the community’s relationship with barriers. The effects on flood risks at nearby communities are not well understood, and it is not clear whether communities will ‘welcome the water’ or reject it as opposing their sense of place. This Disaster Resilience Research Grant (DRRG) project explores participatory transformation of barriers. Stakeholders will provide insights on place meanings across the barrier island and how floods affect these places and their connections to the community. The project also quantifies how flooding at a natural island section may change the hazard at neighboring communities, and whether these locations can be selected to minimize the risks while maximizing community attachments. These activities provide a framework for participatory transformation, as well as advance technologies for flood risk modeling that can be expanded to improve disaster resilience for communities along the U.S. Gulf and Atlantic coasts. This research also supports an immersive experience for students to collaborate across engineering and social-science disciplines to tackle the challenges of climate change.

JC Dietrich, EL Seekamp. “Enhancing Coastal Resilience through Participatory Transformation of Barrier Islands.National Science Foundation, Directorate for Engineering, Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation, Disaster Resilience Research Grants, 2024/01/01 to 2026/12/31, $398,891 (Dietrich: $199,117).