Front Street in Beaufort is inundated Nov. 6, 2021. Photo: Ryan Neve/UNC

NC - Flooding study reveals factors NOAA forecasts don't include

Beaufort’s historic Front Street is a bustling hub for local businesses, and strolling around the area is a must-do for tourists. But all this activity is disrupted when the town experiences flooding.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this has been happening more frequently over the past 20 years and will become increasingly common as sea levels continue to rise.

Thoroughly understanding flood dynamics is important for protecting people and property along the North Carolina coast.

A new study from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University researchers, led by former UNC Institute for the Environment researcher Adam Gold, has illuminated a hidden aspect of flooding not captured by NOAA’s flood observations. Gold currently is with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.

The researchers, who work together on the Sunny Day Flooding Project, used Beaufort’s Front Street as a case study to test a new, real-time sensor framework for detecting and measuring coastal flooding.

NOAA flood observations are based on data from tide gauges, which measure changes in water levels due to the tides, storm surge and river flow. But, the researchers found, they don’t capture flooding caused by rainfall, which accounted for 25% of the 24 flood events they observed in Beaufort during the five-month study period from June to November 2021.

These new measurements of rainfall-induced flooding begin to fill an important gap in flood records.

“It’s kind of an insidious problem,” Gold said. Because downtown Beaufort is so developed, rain can’t soak into the ground, and it runs into the underground drainage system instead.

“Ideally that would flow out to the sound or to Taylors Creek,” Gold explained. “But what we’re seeing is with these higher water levels in the tidal creek, that water is creeping up into the stormwater network.”

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