Cape Cod Students Learn about Coastal Hazards and Preparedness

Location: Waquoit Bay

Hurricanes and nor’easters are major hazards that face the coastal communities of Massachusetts. As coastal development increases, less-intense storms that occur more regularly and sea level rise will lead to costly flooding and erosion damage. Educating youth about these coastal hazards is important to help keep them safe in dangerous storm events. NOAA’s Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, located on Cape Cod, has developed a series of educational programs to tackle these issues and help coastal communities better prepare for coastal hazards.

Middle school students use measuring poles and levels outside on a beach
Middle school students use measuring poles and levels to determine the hypothetical high tide line on their local beach on Cape Cod, given projected one- and two-meter increases in sea level. (Credit: Amy Ferreira)

In 2014, the research reserve partnered with a local middle school to develop and teach a curriculum unit that explored the science behind coastal hazards and increased geographic awareness and hazard preparedness. Students shared their experiences in major storms and the damage they have witnessed in their community. Using elevation maps, students identified land forms, determined which areas in their town were vulnerable to coastal hazards, and hypothesized where the greatest impacts might be during future storms, or as a result of sea level rise. Students were asked to consider the prevailing wind directions during hurricanes or nor’easters. They then compared these with land use change maps.

Through this exercise, students determined that over time, increased development had taken place in some of the most vulnerable areas.

Students used the Sea Level Rise Viewer, a tool developed by NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management on the Digital Coast website, to consider the potential impacts from sea level rise on their community’s coastline. The classroom component was followed with a trip to a beach that had been impacted by flooding and erosion. In the field, students measured and visualized the increased flood zone at predicted levels of sea level rise and estimated the impacts.

In 2015, STEM Academy Middle School adopted the research reserve’s education unit for the 8th grade curriculum. The unit now reaches over 260 students per year. Students found the unit engaging, since they could investigate their own neighborhoods, evaluate their coastal risks, and consider viable evacuation routes during flood events. With these lessons learned, students will be better prepared when the next big storm hits Cape Cod.