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Reality Deck Helps Researchers Visualize and Predict Storm Surge Emergencies

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Computer Science PhD student Yoonsang Kim (left) and Arie Kaufman, distinguished professor and CEWIT chief scientist, in the Reality Deck. Photos by John Griffin.

The storm now known as Hurricane Sandy developed in the western Caribbean Sea on October 22, 2012, and quickly intensified. After wreaking havoc on Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Bermuda, it moved north in the Atlantic, eventually making landfall as a “superstorm” just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey, the morning of October 29.

Over three intense days, the storm affected 24 U.S. states, including the entire eastern seaboard, with particularly severe damage in New York and New Jersey. In New York City, the streets, tunnels and subway lines were flooded and power throughout the city and beyond was disrupted. The devastation shone a spotlight on research that was already taking place at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS).

“We were interested in storm surge and New York City flooding well before Sandy,” said Brian Colle, professor and division head of Atmospheric Sciences in SoMAS. “New York City had some close calls in the past, even with nor’easter cyclones, like the 1992 nor’easter which flooded part of the subway system. So the metropolitan area had dodged bullets before.”

It wasn’t a question whether it would happen or not, but when.

SoMAS researchers had generated data and developed a storm surge modeling system to predict water levels along the coast, including down to 20-30 meter grid spacing around New York City. The initiative was led by Malcolm Bowman, a distinguished service professor in SoMAS and a globally recognized expert in coastal studies.

“We’d done accurate simulations for past storms including the 1992 nor’easter as well as Hurricane Gloria, where we were fortunate it happened during a low tide,” said Colle. “We had always warned people that it was just a matter of time before we had the type of storm that Sandy ultimately was. It wasn’t a question whether it would happen or not, but when.”

Though Colle and his colleagues had engaged city officials, it became what he describes as a “boy who cried wolf” scenario.

“There wasn’t much interest at the time, unfortunately,” he said. “We could try to convey the risks, but we had no easy way to visualize what could potentially happen.”

That would change in late 2012 — not long after Sandy hit — when the Reality Deck, the largest immersive virtual reality training ground in the world, opened its doors in the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology (CEWIT).

The Reality Deck gave Colle and other SoMAS researchers an opportunity to merge their storm data with the visualization capabilities the Reality Deck offered. A state grant in 2012 helped initiate research to understand the water level rise, as well as storm scenarios and the effect that it has on the population in terms of evacuating people from these areas.

“We worked with the SoMAS scientists to develop simulations of the ocean and the activity within the ocean,” said Arie Kaufman, distinguished professor in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and CEWIT chief scientist. “There are a lot of dynamic components in addition to the static level of the water of the ocean.”

Three years ago, the group received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop flooding scenarios using visualization and determine whether they impact user risk perception. Typically, these are ensemble simulations in which several scenarios with different parameters are analyzed and averaged, much like weather or climate forecasts. This produces results for multiple scenarios.

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“We build these on the Reality Deck to get an immersive 3D representation with a map of the terrain overlaid on top of it, including the manmade structures, roads, and infrastructure,” said Kaufman. “We can see what might happen when an area like the Midtown Tunnel floods. It’s very realistic. The goal is to give emergency managers a representation of the city and what will happen. Right now they have a 2D ‘plane-view.’ They don’t have dynamic 3D representation. Our Sandy model was one of the first prototypes to do that. We can zoom in and show a realistic representation of the flooding that could happen in New York City right down to the building scale.”

Colle’s group has held workshops to showcase these visualizations and illustrate the dangers.

“We invited several emergency managers around New York City and we went through a hurricane scenario,” he said. “It was a fictitious scenario where our partners from the NOAA National Weather Service for New York City presented a storm background. We showed them and then asked if this information would help in terms of understanding the risk and the vulnerable areas of their communities.”

After seeing the visualizations, officials recognized the potential value of such simulations and offered further suggestions.

“They asked about incorporating building information into the model,” said Colle. “What if a user could click on a building and determine how many people are there and the demographics of that population? Can they evacuate to the nearest evacuation center? Will we be able to access all the important information that people need to know? Since that workshop our group has been working on gathering more data sets besides just water level and buildings and infrastructure. We want to give emergency planners the tools to say, ‘okay, this is the route we’ll take’ and ‘here’s how we can move people in hospitals to another place.’”

Reality deck sandy tablet cu“Another challenge is how to communicate this visualization information with a larger number of community officials and stakeholders in a flood prone region, so we are planning a future workshop in 2023 to tackle that,” Colle added.

Kaufman also uses the models to show the potential effects of climate change.

“We developed a worldwide application that shows sea level rise because we know that this is happening,” he said. “We can look at hypothetical scenarios like what would happen if the entire North Pole melted? If that happened we’d get 90 inches of water. We can show you this on a map of the entire world and there are some amazing things to see. And this is an important application, but that represents a static situation. With storms we’re talking about dynamic situations with many components.”

Kaufman describes the effort as a more tangible way of presenting uncertainty to emergency managers.

“Officials would have interest in these tools, but I think the general public would also,” he said. “I’m sure they’d want to know what’s happening and what might happen in various situations. And that’s really ‘uncertainty visualization.’ We don’t have all the solutions yet. But we’re working on it.”

— Robert Emproto

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