Just Explain It: Storm Surge

Summer is coming and if you live in areas along the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, you know that means hurricane season is coming too. For most in the U.S., hurricane season begins on June 1 and ends November 30.

The National Hurricane Center won't make its forecast for the coming season until May 23, but predictions from other organizations range from "very active" to a "nightmare."

It’s not just wind and rain from hurricanes and tropical storms that threaten lives and property. Storm surge is now a major concern for forecasters and residents in cities along the coasts.

So, what is storm surge? And why is it becoming a big concern?

That’s the subject of today's Just Explain It.

First, let’s start with a hurricane.

A hurricane is defined by its wind speed. So, a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of 73 mph or less is a “tropical storm.” A tropical cyclone with sustained winds of 74 mph or more is a “hurricane.” Hurricanes are categorized from one to five, with categories three or above considered "major hurricanes."

[Related: Images of Breezy Point, Queens after Hurricane Sandy] 

But wind speed may not be the only way to describe the potential damage of a tropical storm or hurricane. You also have to consider storm surge. This is the increased water level that gets pushed ashore from the storm’s wind. With the added force, water can wreak havoc on whatever is in its path, just like we saw during Hurricane Sandy almost six months ago.

The storm made landfall with “only” Category 1 winds, but Sandy’s storm surge peaked at almost 6 feet in Atlantic City, New Jersey, over 9 feet in Manhattan’s Battery Park, and devastated the coasts of many states in the Northeast. The National Hurricane Center says 41 of the 72 deaths in the U.S directly caused by Sandy - more than half - were due to storm surge, while the entire storm caused an estimated $50 billion in damages.

[Related: Federal Government Commits Transit Aid After Sandy]

There are two reasons storm surge is only now becoming a big problem. Populations and cities are growing in coastal areas typically affected by storm surge. And sea levels are rising from melting glaciers and ice caps.

So, what do we do about it? Many cities are researching or have already begun investing in levees and other barriers to protect them from water. And NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is developing a system to issue storm surge watches and warnings to alert the public of dangers during a storm. The system is expected to launch in 2015.

So let us know…Did you learn something? Have you been affected by storm surge? Do you live in an area that is in danger of being hit by storm surge? Give us your feedback in the comments section below, or on Twitter using #YahooNews and #JustExplainIt.

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