In blue crop pants, blue plaid shirt and bare feet, Milyn King marched along the high tide line at the Fort Monroe beach, sounding off as she went.
“One, two, three, four, five! The magic number!”
She punched a button on her cellphone app, shooting out a GPS signal to ping her precise location. Then she set off again, one, two, three, four, five — ping.
Meanwhile, waves rolled, crashed and broke around her. The Chesapeake Bay was a somber gray, the mottled clouds just as murky. In the distance, a massive cruise ship, spectral in the morning haze, sped toward downtown Norfolk.
And this was what it looked like to help map the king tide — the highest astronomical tide of the year — as part of “Catch the King,” a project deploying more than 900 citizen-scientists throughout Hampton Roads from 9 a.m. to noon Sunday with a single purpose.
The goal? To give climate modelers, policymakers and the public a taste of what a normal daily high tide could look like in just a few decades as the sea level continues to rise, encroaching on streets, beaches and wetlands.
King, 64, is a glass artist and her husband, Stephen King, 65, an Air Force retiree. They used to live on Fort Monroe until moving to the nearby Wythe neighborhood in 2002. Over the years, they’ve seen how hurricanes, erosion and floods have changed the face of the fort community “drastically.”
“We’d like to be able to support its continued existence,” Milyn King said. “And the predictability of existence. ... Right now it seems like everything that we thought we could take for granted is sort of up for grabs.”
They can’t invest a lot of money in such efforts, she said, but they can invest their time.
“We can come out here and we can walk,” she said. “And we can drop pins. And we can help collect data which would make things more predictable. And, in a way, it’s sort of an illusionary feeling of control. We're doing something to help something move forward and something to be in control and something to be straightforward and clean.”
What to do with the data
A king tide is caused when the moon and sun align in just the right way for gravity to tug a daily high tide to its highest annual peak.
The king tide mapping, enabled by a mobile app called Sea Level Rise, was a partnership of the Daily Press, The Virginian-Pilot, WHRO Public Media and WVEC-TV.
The app allows users to collect data in three main ways, said Derek Loftis, an assistant research scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. Loftis is chief science liaison for “Catch the King.” VIMS is affiliated with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
Users can walk the high tide line and drop “bread crumbs” — i.e., click a button every few steps to put a GPS pin at the site, or they can take pictures of inundation sites and interesting flood features, or they can record field notes.
The system worked well Sunday morning, although there were reports the app crashed at one point, caused by so many photographs being uploaded at once.
All the data collected will be used in various ways, Loftis said, but in particular to develop and validate inundation models. Even scientists in other countries are now using Hampton Roads as a case study to develop their own models. So the more localized data available, he said, the more attractive the region becomes for further outside study.
This is important because Hampton Roads has the second-highest rate of sea level rise in the country behind New Orleans. Scientists blame this on a double whammy: Not only is the ocean rising, but the land here is sinking because of groundwater extraction and a geological phenomenon known as post-glacial rebound.
King tide data can also be useful long term to city planners, Loftis said, and short term for emergency management and flood mitigation.
And it can help with a new project called Storm Sense in which water sensors were installed throughout the area by VIMS and the U.S. Geological Survey over the past few years. King tide data can be used to calibrate the accuracy of those sensors.
The Sea Level Rise technology is an improvement over Loftis’ earlier research on street flooding for his dissertation, published in 2014, which focused on Hurricane Sandy in New York City. There, scientists used photos posted to social media sites to help validate their results.
The app was created several years ago at the behest of Skip Stiles, executive director at Wetlands Watch, who recruited a company called Concursive to write the code.
Since then, Loftis and Stiles have used the app many times in Hampton Roads, including mapping impacts of Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 as it was offshore, and hurricanes Matthew and Hermine last year.
“We’re pretty familiar with jumping in your car and running around to see if you can hit as many sites as possible all over.” Loftis said.
Volunteer Phil Grathwol is a project manager for a defense contractor and a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. He’s lived in Norfolk’s Larchmont neighborhood for a decade. He had his first wake-up call on tidal flooding soon after moving in when a storm turned the street outside his home into a creek. He found his toddler children swimming in it.
Now, Grathwol said, he’s interested “in just how bad it could get and what is the trend? What’s Norfolk going to be like 50 or 100 years from now?"
Grathwol mapped a portion of a dog park along Cambridge Crescent in what he considers a “good first step in having the data to predict that trend.”
The mapping project will also help educate the outside world that flooding isn’t confined to Norfolk, which tends to get the lion’s share of attention for sea level rise in Virginia.
“Really, the folks on the national platform pretty frequently ask, ‘Does it flood outside of Norfolk?’ ” Loftis said. “And, of course, the folks that live here are very well familiar that it floods in Newport News and Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, James City County and Williamsburg and Hampton and Poquoson and all these places that flood in these low-lying areas.”
Doug Simpson, 45, was a designated tide captain for the York County/Poquoson area, which had more than 40 volunteers mapping sites from Poquoson through Naval Weapons Station Yorktown.
Formerly active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard, Simpson is now a civil servant working with the service’s recreational boating safety mission. He personally mapped a salt marsh on the Back River at the intersection of Carys Chapel and Wythe Creek roads.
He’s only lived in the area for five years but said longtime residents have told him their yards are “getting wetter and wetter all the time.”
“It’s really important that we get a good handle on, Are we making this happen? Are we doing this to ourselves?” Simpson said. “And, if so, what things can we do to address it?”
‘A little army’
Even after the king tide recedes, Loftis and others want to keep the momentum going.
“If folks are motivated and interested, we’d like to be able to call upon this same group of volunteers, or a subset of them, to help us monitor,” Loftis said.
“If we get hurricanes or nor’easters in the next couple years, those will be even more substantially valuable data than just the king tide. The king tide is kind of like a low-stakes dress rehearsal.”
Simpson and the Kings say they’re game to continue.
“The more us citizen-scientists stand together,” Simpson said, “the better data and better understanding we’re going to have of our changing world.”
The app is staying on their mobile phones, said Stephen King, so they can continue to map flooding trouble-spots wherever and whenever they crop up.
“You could potentially have a little army of people that are all out there helping the city to be better prepared for the unfortunate events that potentially will face us,” Milyn King said.
“Actually, you can kind of take ‘potential’ off of that now. The events that are coming our way that we would all like to deal with to the best of our ability.”
Virginian-Pilot staff writer Dave Mayfield contributed to this story.
Contact Dietrich at 757-247-7892 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at DP_Dietrich