New digital elevation data, obtained years ahead of schedule along the New York and New Jersey coastlines, is already yielding benefits.
In a hotel conference room on Long Island, New York, a team of experts processes data on computers. A large monitor displays topographic and bathymetric information.
“It’s a beautiful thing. On the screen they are able to observe the condition of New York’s and New Jersey’s coastlines almost in real-time,” said Jeffrey Cusano, geospatial coordinator, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
The team is the Joint Airborne Lidar Bathymetry Technical Center of Expertise (JALBTCX). Recently, Cusano and other members of the New York District seized the opportunity to use this team to obtain cutting-edge survey data about the current condition of New York’s and New Jersey’s coasts. USACE is already using this data to monitor and cost-effectively improve its coastal projects, as it enters the Atlantic Hurricane Season.
The JALBTCX is based at USACE’s Mobile District in Alabama. The Center performs operations, research, and development in various airborne geospatial technologies to support coastal mapping and charting requirements for USACE. The Center also partners with other federal agencies, private industry, and academia to further develop these technologies.
One of the Center’s programs is the National Coastal Mapping Program. The mission’s intent is to acquire regional, high-resolution, high-accuracy elevation and imagery data along the sandy shorelines of the United States on a recurring basis.
A sample of the type of elevation images the JALBTCX team developed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. This image shows the shoreline elevations along the coast of Staten Island, New York. (USACE)
To obtain this data, JALBTCX uses an aircraft equipped with government-owned, state-of-the-art remote sensing platforms. These platforms comprise a lidar sensor with both topographic and bathymetric capabilities, and two additional aerial mapping cameras. The lidar’s topographic capability measures the elevation of the coastline’s beach and dune systems and its bathymetric capability measures the seafloor elevations. Whether operating over land or water, the lidar sensor provides highly detailed and accurate elevation measurements, while the two additional cameras provide high-resolution images and spectral information.
This data is acquired along the sandy coastlines of the United States approximately every five years. The last time JALBTCX flew over the coasts of New York and New Jersey was in 2017 and it is next scheduled to fly again in 2022. The New York District wanted to get this information sooner. When they discovered that JALBTCX had a window of time available, the District coastal team quickly worked to take advantage of this opportunity.
“They wanted to understand the current coastal condition and how it compared to the 2017 condition to see what work needs to be done now to improve the condition of the coasts. This may involve such things as sand replenishment and environmental work. They also wanted to see if the work they already performed is functioning well,” said Cusano.
Over a two-week period in late January, the JALBTCX team flew their lidar and cameras over portions of the New York and New Jersey coasts. The coastal team worked closely with JALBTCX to design flight plans that would produce good data coverage over New York District’s coastal projects. The flights covered approximately 157 miles of coastline.
To capture the data, the flight crew flew primarily during daylight hours at or near low tide, at an altitude of 1,300 feet above ground level and at an air speed of 140 knots, covering a swath that included between 1,000 and 2,000 meters of the nearshore and onshore area. They flew overnight operations only in the vicinity of John F. Kennedy International Airport in order to work with existing airspace restrictions. The survey aircraft operated out of the Long Island MacArthur Airport. The JALBTCX team stood up a flight operations and data production center in a hotel conference room nearby.
The JALBTCX team will produce a Change Analysis. To perform this analysis, JALBTCX used this newly acquired continuous digital elevation dataset and compared it to their dataset from 2017. Results will reveal where sand has either eroded or accumulated along the coastline.
“We now have valuable information that shows us where there may be storm damage and sand loss that requires repairs,” said Cusano. “It also shows us how we are progressing with ongoing coastal projects, of which we have done many in the last three years.”
According to senior coastal engineer Suzana Rice, JALBTCX’s lidar “is a great tool for us to monitor and understand our coastlines and compare data from previous years, to use during the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season.”
She added that the timeliness of the Change Analysis data, having been delivered just 10 business days after the last flight, enabled one particular coastal project to proceed faster. “Because of this new data, we were able to expedite the pre-construction engineering and design phase of the Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point Project.” She added that the data is also being used to cost-effectively create the plans and specifications for the Fire Island Inlet to Moriches Inlet Emergency Stabilization Project.
In order to create these plans and specifications, the team needs to know how much sand will be needed to replenish the beach. Without the JALBTCX data, traditional surveying techniques would have been required; they would have taken longer and been more expensive.
The JALBTCX data is also useful for other purposes. For example, senior biologist Robert Smith noted that the data is being used “to design and track changes to habitats we built for endangered species, such as the Piping Plover, an endangered bird that nests along the shore in the summer. We built habitats for the plovers to nest and forage.”
Likewise, Cusano noted that the data may help inform and educate the public. “This past fall we had a number of nor’easters that caused coastal damage,” he said. “Because of this, residents contacted us. They sought information about damages and if rebuilding was needed. We were able to use the data to better respond to their inquiries.”
Finally, the lidar data is also available to the public and other agencies. The JALBTCX team posts the data on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Digital Coast website, which includes a multiyear archive of survey data acquired along U.S. coasts by partners in the federal mapping community and some state agencies. Website users can search for a specific coastal area, learn about available data, specify which data layers they want to view, and save the information in the format they prefer. The dataset that JALBTCX gathered recently for the New York District is currently accessible here: https://coast.noaa.gov/dataviewer/#/lidar/search/where:ID=9000 .
“In my opinion, this data is a win for everybody,” said Cusano. “It helps USACE monitor and cost-effectively improve our coastal projects, and it helps our agency educate the public about their coasts and the work we are doing for them, as we begin a new Atlantic hurricane season.”
The JALBTCX team standing with Col. Thomas Asbery, former district commander, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (far right), in front of their aircraft, at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, New York. (USACE, 2020)