Tracking Data Through the Storm

By October 19, 2011October 17th, 2014General, Science and Technology
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By Dr. Jesse McNinch and Kerry Larsen

Researchers test the Coastal LIDAR and Radar Imaging System tracked vehicle at the ERDC Field Research Facility in Duck, NC. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is on the cutting edge of mobile mapping systems for coastal areas, using remote sensing to measure depths and land elevation, as well as waves and currents. Dr. Jesse McNinch and Dr. Katie Brodie, researchers in the ERDC Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory (CHL), have designed the Coastal LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and Radar Imaging System (CLARIS). Using LIDAR technology coupled with radar, the pair has created a tracked vehicle that can operate in storms, avoiding debris and other obstacles while it gathers information on topography, both of a coastline and the seabed below the waves.

CLARIS can image a beach and underwater contours from elevations of about 100 feet to depths of 60 feet. The vehicle can cover more than six miles of shoreline in two hours, collecting and transmitting data on surface topography and subsurface bathymetry (the measurement of water depth at various places in a body of water), along with wave motion, speed, and direction data. Applications for this new technology are varied, including military force projection uses. Real-time information on surf conditions for a proposed beach landing,for example, could be supplied to military personnel miles away. Other uses include storm data gathering, such as during Hurricane Earl last year, when CLARIS captured surf zone information for use by meteorologists and other scientists.

Prior to CLARIS, collecting simultaneous observations of oceanographic conditions and vulnerable coastal areas during storms had been virtually impossible.

The coastal research community has long recognized the value of “during storm” data because most of the relevant processes (for example, sediment transport, shoreline change, and infrastructure damage) occur during these energetic events. Unfortunately, collecting observations where the signal is strongest necessitates working in the surf zone and over flooded land, one of the most challenging environments on earth.

The forces of large breaking waves are tremendous, the depths are too shallow for vessel operation, and the scales of change are so large that measurements from just a few locations, such as hardened structures, are inadequate to track such a complex weather process.

CLARIS represents a significant step forward in coastal observing techniques during storm conditions and over large areas. The system has already yielded scientific breakthroughs in understanding shoreline erosion hotspots, beach overwash (the flow of water and sediment over the crest of the beach that does not directly return to the water), and sediment exchange between the beach and nearby shoals.  As part of collaborative research with the U.S. Geologic Survey, CLARIS was applied to observe and measure sediment exchange between shoals and the beach system at Cape Hatteras, NC. In addition, CLARIS is receiving funding support from the Office of Naval Research and other DOD sources.

For more information on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, visit, or for more information on ERDC, visit


    • DR. JESSE MCNINCH is Director of the ERDC Field Research Facility’s Field Data Collection and Analysis Branch in Duck, NC. McNinch holds a Ph.D. in marine science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a tenured associate professor at the College of William and Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
    • KERRY LARSEN is a Public Affairs Specialist at ERDC. He is a graduate of the Public Affairs Officer Course and the Joint Intermediate Public Affairs Course at the Defense Information School.


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