Bay Journal

Wind, weak current combine to raise sea level higher than normal; 32 awarded watershed grants; and more…

  • By Staff and Wire Reports on October 01, 2009
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Wind, weak current combine to raise sea level higher than normal

Boaters and waterfront landowners who thought the Bay seemed higher than normal this summer weren't imagining anything.

An unusual combination of persistent winds and weakened current off the coast resulted in higher than normal sea levels in the Bay and along the East Coast during June and July, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The highest sea levels were in the mid-Atlantic. At times, water levels in Baltimore were 2 feet higher than normal. The NOAA report, released in September, said it was the most extreme high-water event in the mid-Atlantic during the spring and summer since 1980.

The event, which caused some minor coastal flooding but mostly mystified everyone from anglers to researchers, prompted NOAA scientists to review data from tide stations and buoys along the coast to determine what happened.

"The ocean is dynamic, and it's not uncommon to have anomalies," said Mike Szabados, director of ?NOAA's Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services. "What made this event unique was its breadth, intensity and duration.

Persistent winds and a weakened Gulf Stream, particularly in the mid-Atlantic, contributed to higher than predicted tides.

In late June and early July, winds from North Carolina's Cape Hatteras to the Gulf of Maine had a moderate Northeast component that caused sea levels to rise along the coast.

At the same time, the Florida Current, which flows by the Florida Straits before merging with the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras, weakened. A strong Gulf Stream pulls nearby water along with it, away from the coast. But when a weak Florida Current relaxes the Gulf Stream, water is released to the coast.

Those events overlapped a period already predicted to have higher than normal tides.

Tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun, and every two weeks during the new moon, the sun and moon are on the same side of the Earth, both pulling tides in the same direction, producing "spring tides" that are about 20 percent higher than normal.

Because the moon has an eliptical 28-day orbit, at some point every four weeks it reaches its perigee-when it is closest to the Earth. When the perigee coincides with a spring tide -something that happens three or four times a year-tides are even higher. This is known as a perigean spring tide.

A predicted perigean spring tide occurred in late June, further amplifying high water levels.

32 awarded watershed grants

The Chesapeake Bay Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are awarding $2.8 million in 32 grants to help clean streams, creeks and rivers that flow into the Bay.

The funding was awarded through the Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants Program, which provides grants to nonprofit organizations and local governments working to improve the condition of their local watershed.

This year's recipients will develop conservation plans, preserve valuable natural lands and implement on-the-ground restoration practices throughout the Bay's six-state watershed.

For instance, the Spa Creek Conservancy will use its $109,240 grant to install pollution-reducing practices such as rain gardens at St. Martin's Evangelical Church and School in Annapolis, MD.

The Piedmont Environmental Council will use its $75,000 grant to increase financial incentives for farmers to install livestock-exclusion fencing and forest buffers along Virginia's Upper Hazel River, a tributary of the Rappahannock River.

Ducks Unlimited received $20,333 to restore 473 acres of wetlands, including 84 acres of globally rare Atlantic white cedar, in the headwaters of the Nanticoke and Pocomoke river watersheds in Delaware.

"When considered collectively, these 32 projects will have a tremendous positive impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed," said Bay Program Director Jeffrey Lape. "This year's projects will restore 620 acres of wetlands, plant 32 rain gardens and 172 acres of streamside forest buffers, and fence off 23 miles of streams to exclude livestock."

Since 2000, the program has provided $23.6 million to support 587 projects which have been used to leverage an additional $68.4 million from other funding sources.

The program is administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and is funded primarily by the EPA's Bay Program Office, the USDA Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For information about the program and a full list of this year's grant recipients, visit

Obama task force calls for National Ocean Council

The Obama administration in September released the first glimpse of a plan to strengthen the way the nation manages the oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes.

President Barack Obama's Ocean Policy Task Force-composed of 24 officials from myriad federal agencies- recommended creating a new National Ocean Council with power to coordinate and hold accountable federal agencies in conservation and marine planning efforts.

"Right now (ocean policy) is done on a piecemeal basis, one agency regulating fisheries, one shipping, one water quality, another national security and there's no real mechanized thinking on how sectors interact with each other," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a task force member. "For the first time, we as a nation say loudly and clearly that healthy oceans matter."

The president created the task force to coordinate the federal response to pollution from industrial and commercial activities, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, among other problems.

The new National Ocean Council would replace the Committee on Ocean Policy, instituted by President George W. Bush in 2004, which the task force called "moderately effective."

The council would help coastal communities-whether it be a struggling fishing industry in Northern California or a hurricane-damaged area on the Gulf Coast-through better coordination and strategic planning.

The report also recommends that the federal government view all ocean policy with a "ecosystem-based approach," meaning decisions would be made with an emphasis on understanding how all life would be affected in a given area. Officials said this would be a key philosophical shift in the nation's approach.

The report is short on details about how and when these goals would be achieved, but environmental groups applauded the White House's efforts, calling it is an important first step in achieving badly needed reform.

2 websites to help public explore John Smith trail

Two new websites about the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail provide tools for exploring the Bay.

Companion websites recently launched by the National Park Service ( and the Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail ( invite travelers to begin their on-the-trail adventures on line. The sites show how and where to visit the trail by water or land; highlight sample itineraries and things to do; and offer numerous tools for planning and sharing trail adventures.

Those who "Join the Adventure" via the primary trail website produced by the National Park Service's Chesapeake Bay Office will find interactive maps showing points of interest and access along the routes of Smith's historic voyages. They can connect to more than 160 sites and 1,500 miles of water trails that are gateways to Chesapeake Bay experiences.

The complementary website produced by the Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail offers additional trip features, news of current events affecting the trail and an opportunity to get involved in supporting the trail and Bay conservation. The Friends is a not-for-profit organization that facilitates support of the trail and conservation of the Chesapeake's treasured landscapes.

Bill to strengthen Gateways Network approved

The U.S. House in September approved legislation that would permanently authorize funding for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network grant program. The network ties together more than 150 museums, state parks, wildlife refuges, Indian reservations, water trails and other sites in six states and the District of Columbia to enable visitors to appreciate the far-reaching role that the Bay has had in the culture and history of the region.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, who sponsored the legislation, praised the network which "has already done so much to raise awareness of the fragile health of the Bay and directly engage our region's citizens and visitors to take an active role in fulfilling our shared goal of restoring the Chesapeake."

The Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network program allocates matching grants of $5,000 to $50,000 for projects that advance network goals. The legislation must still be approved by the Senate.

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