By Connor Dacey, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Throughout history, Americans have been drawn to the United States’ (U.S.) coastlines. The coasts have traditionally brought both economic and societal prosperity, with some of the country’s largest cities being located on the shore. On the East Coast, the residents of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Miami benefit from the booming fishing and seafood industry of the Atlantic Ocean. Along the Gulf Coast, the residents of New Orleans and Houston enjoy the typically warm and calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico that attract thousands of tourists each year. On the west coast, residents of Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco can partake in whale watching on the cold waters of mighty Pacific Ocean. There are also those cities that border the Great Lakes, such as Chicago, Milwaukee, or Cleveland. Overall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the total length of the U.S. shoreline is 95,471 miles, with more than half of the American population living near or on the coast. This is especially evident when considering all of the major cities that sprawl along the country’s shorelines. Although home to millions of Americans, the coastlines are not without their risks.

As the GSA position statement on Managing U.S. Coastal Hazards states, “the United States is vulnerable to coastal hazards” including hurricanes, nor’easters, and tsunamis. As such, it is important for “resource managers and decision-makers in all sectors to… apply geoscience information to inform their decisions in order to avoid catastrophic losses” from such hazards. Not only are a majority of American living on the coastlines, but an additional 12 million Americans are expected to move to the coasts over the next decade. In order to better protect those coastal inhabitants and mitigate some of the risks posed by coastal hazards, Members of Congress introduced the Digital Coast Act (S. 1069/H.R. 2189).

Researchers at Princeton and Rutgers universities and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution surveying houses damaged at Ortley Beach, New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy. Image Credit: National Science Foundation

The Digital Coast Act, which should soon be signed into law, was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). A House version was introduced by Rep. Ruppersberger (D-MD-02). The Digital Coast Act requires NOAA to “establish a program for the provision of an enabling platform that integrates geospatial data, decision-support tools, training, and best practices to address coastal management issues and needs.” This platform will “strive to enhance resilient communities, ecosystem values, and coastal economic growth and development by helping communities address their issues, needs, and challenges through cost-effective and participatory solutions.” In essence, the Digital Coast Act allows NOAA to create a “one-stop-shop” for geospatial data and information, tools, and resources to aid scientists and decision-makers in flood and coastal storm surge prediction, hazard risk and vulnerability assessments, emergency response and recovery planning, and community resilience to longer range coastal changes1. The bill authorizes $4 million for each fiscal year 2021 through 2025 to carry out the program.

The bill also allows NOAA to enter financial agreements or contracts with non-Federal entities and private companies that will provide remote sensing or geospatial information data (i.e. coastal elevation data, socioeconomic and human use data, aerial imagery, etc.) to aid in accomplishing its goal of an all-encompassing platform that provides valuable coastal information.

In addition to supporting GSA’s position statement of Managing Coastal Hazards, this bill also supports GSA’s commitment to Improve Natural Hazards Policies through Geoscience and Preserve Geoscience Data. To elaborate, GSA “urges scientists, policy makers, risk managers, and the public to work together to reduce vulnerability to natural hazards,” while also “enlisting the resources of the private sector in hazards and disaster risk‐reduction strategies.” These are two measures that are directly discussed within the text of the Digital Coast Act. GSA also recommends “identifying, organizing, documenting, and cataloging existing data collections, preferably in digital format.” This bill specifically calls for all data to be uploaded to the online platform for the shared use by coastal states, local governments, coastal managers, and other representatives of academia, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations.

The Digital Coast Act passed the Senate on September 30th, 2020. It was then sent to the House of Representatives where it was passed with some minor technical changes via a voice vote and sent back to the Senate for reconsideration on November 16th, 2020. On December 2nd, 2020 the Senate agreed to the changes by unanimous consent. The bill will now move to the President’s desk to be signed into law.