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Tampa Bay Area scientists, policymakers plan for rising sea levels

It’s an unusually cool and overcast January day as Dr. Mark Luther, an Associate Professor of Physical Oceanography at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, drives out to the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Downtown St. Pete’s Bayboro Harbor.

As a local partner of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Agency, he’s here to see how a team of visiting NOAA engineers is fairing as they replace St. Petersburg’s aging tide gauge station with a new microwave sensor monitoring system.

While the technicians connect wires and test the new monitor, Luther explains how the microwave system will measure the sea level in Tampa Bay once a second and, in turn, send that data over satellite to NOAA’s operations center in Silver Spring MD every six minutes. The tide gauge data provides real time updates on sea level rise and other local climate conditions to NOAA and their partners at the National Weather Service.

The St. Pete tide gauge is an important node in a growing national network of climate sensors and monitors. The data it provides is tapped by a wide range of institutions and researchers, including environmental scientists like Luther, who leads the University’s Ocean Modeling and Prediction Laboratory, along with Port Tampa Bay, the U.S. Coast Guard and a variety of private sector companies. The insurance industry uses tide gauge data to model and monitor climate-related risks to their portfolios of outstanding policies, for example.

The new microwave tide gauge is the latest and most sophisticated to be installed at the station, which has been continuously monitoring sea level in St. Petersburg for nearly seven decades. Today, the tide gauge is playing a new role in helping Tampa Bay scientists to create regional sea level rise projections that local governments can use to plan for rising tides.