As Tropical Storm Cristobal approaches the northern Gulf of Mexico coast, the National Hurricane Center has predicted peak storm surge levels could reach 3-5 feet from southeast Louisiana, east of the Mississippi River levees, to Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Cristobal’s broad wind field is likely to push anywhere from 1 to 4 feet of storm surge along the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast.
It makes sense for coastal residents to compare these forecasted storm surge levels with their home elevations to assess flood risk. Many residents in flood-prone communities have elevation certificates, official documents provided by a licensed surveyor, architect or engineer, that provide the elevation of the lowest habitable floor in their home, as well as the ground beneath the building.
These residents often make the common mistake of assuming the elevation on the certificate measures height above Mean Sea Level (MSL), the approximate average between high and low tide. However, sea level is dynamic, changing levels both long-term, from sea-level rise, and short-term, from tidal cycles and daily weather. Therefore, elevation certificates are measured above a datum, a fixed line that provides a constant “0” mark above which we measure elevations.
The most common datum referenced on elevation certificates is called the Northern American Vertical Datum of 1988, abbreviated NAVD88. However, some certificates reference the National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929, or NGVD29. The datum is provided on the certificate, as seen in the example above, where the “top of the bottom floor” is listed at 11.1 feet above the NAVD88 datum.
So what does this mean for assessing your flood risk from an approaching storm like Tropical Storm Cristobal?
Scientists, surveyors and engineers are trained to convert datum elevations to water levels. After all, what you really care about is the level of water that may impact your building.
Generally speaking, MSL elevations, and certainly high tide elevations, are usually higher than the NAVD88 datum. The graphic below shows the datum conversions at the Bay Waveland Yacht Club tide gauge, near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, maintained by NOAA Tides and Currents.
The water levels in this graphic are measured above Mean Lowest Low Water, or MLLW. This level is basically the mean of the lowest tide levels. Note that the NAVD88 level is 0.7 feet above MLLW, but MSL is 0.9 feet above MLLW. Simple subtraction reveals that MSL is 0.2 feet, or 2.4 inches, higher than NAVD88. I put a yellow box around these values.
For prolonged coastal flood events with broad wind fields, like we might find with Tropical Storm Cristobal, referencing high tide levels may be more important than MSL, because a high tide cycle is more likely during the coastal flood event. That level is shown on the graphic as 1.64 feet above MLLW, or 0.94 feet (11.28 inches) above NAVD88.
Remember that your elevation certificate references height above NAVD88. High tide level is nearly one foot higher than this level, according to the datum chart. The differences between NAVD88 (what is referenced on your elevation certificate) and MSL or Mean High Tide level is site-specific and will vary from one location to the next.
However, before you get out your tape measure to calculate your exact elevation above the closest high tide level, we have one more factor to consider. Rising sea levels related to climate change, specifically from thermal expansion of warming water and melting of land-based ice, raise coastal water levels even higher above fixed datums, like NAVD88.
For example, the datum at Bay Waveland Yacht Club was established from averaging sea level data from 1983-2001. A 19-year averaging period like this is common to account for various tidal ranges related to lunar cycles. Consider that the mean year of this time period was 1992, nearly 30 years ago.
According to Renee Collini, Coordinator of the Northern Gulf of Mexico Sentinel Site Cooperative (NGOMSSC), sea level rise along the northern Gulf Coast has been noticeable. Bay Waveland has observed slightly less than 8 inches of sea level rise since 1978, while Dauphin Island, Alabama, has observed 8 inches since 1966. Rates in western Mississippi are slightly higher than eastern Mississippi and Alabama due to subsidence, or sinking ground. This means water levels today are even higher than the NAVD88 datum than are listed on the datum conversions graphic.
Collini’s calculations fit my own field work observations I collected while measuring ground elevations along the coast in Biloxi, Mississippi. On my last day of field work before the coronavirus pandemic shut down society, I measured ground elevations at 18 sites, including water-level sites along the Gulf Coast and Biloxi Bay. This work was funded on a grant to CNC Catastrophe and National Claims through the NGOMSSC, in coordination with Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
As you can see in the photo above, the bottom of my GPS pole was located between the water level to the right and high tide line to the left. Note the debris pattern showing the outline of two high tide lines to the left. I estimate that the bottom of my pole was around 2-3 inches vertical distance below the highest tide line. The GPS elevation of my pole bottom read 1.53 feet above NAVD88.
These field measurements provide an approximation that high tide level on that March afternoon would have come to around 1.74 feet ( 1 feet 9 inches) above the NAVD88 datum. We can think of this as though the water level already has a 21-inch head start on flooding the land before a storm even arrives. And that doesn’t even include the contribution to waves that can push additional water on top of the storm surge.
These factors are important, and surprising, to many coastal homeowners, who assume the house level on their elevation certificate is the height above sea level. In many parts of the coast, high tide levels may be 1-3 feet higher than the NAVD88 datum, meaning the floor boards of people’s homes are 1-3 feet closer to the water level than they thought.
Considering the science behind these measurements and the accelerated rates of sea level rise along our coastlines, coastal residents will benefit from including a “buffer” both when they build new construction and when they assess the risk of flooding during an approaching storm, like Cristobal.
In the context of Cristobal, the 3-5 foot storm surge forecast from the National Hurricane Center does not mean we should expect water levels to stop at 5 feet above the mapped (NAVD88) datum. We should add approximately 2 feet above this level in coastal Mississippi (values will change with location), and then give a little more buffer to account for wave action that comes in on top of the storm surge. The big picture is that coastal residents should build in a considerable buffer when comparing their home elevation with forecast storm surge levels.