Thomas Wahl, an assistant professor in the UCF Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering, has been recognized by the National Science Foundation with a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for his research proposal, The Effect of Spatiotemporal Storm Surge Clusters on Coastal Flood Risk.

The NSF CAREER award is a highly-competitive grant awarded to up-and-coming faculty researchers who serve as academic role models in research and education. It is among the most prestigious awards given to early career faculty by NSF.

Wahl will receive $550,000 over a five-year period to study the compounding effects of storm surges. His research will focus on two areas: temporal clustering — multiple surges on an area within a short amount of time — and spatial clustering — surges that impact similar coastline stretches during storms.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria are prime examples of temporal clustering. They both produced strong winds, rainfall and storm surges in Puerto Rico within a two-week period in September 2017. The storm surge from Hurricane Dorian in 2019, which impacted coastlines in the southeast U.S. and in the Bahamas, is a textbook example of an event with a large footprint, leading to spatial clustering. These types of surges can be devastating to coastal communities, straining insurance and government budgets for rebuilding homes and infrastructure.

“Such clusters of storm surge events can lead to severe impacts, because recovery — socio-economic recovery and the recovery of flood defenses, such as dune systems — is oftentimes still underway when the next event occurs,” Wahl said. “Even if it is smaller than the first event, it can lead to more severe impacts.”

Wahl and his team will uncover what conditions make these events more likely to occur and how these conditions change over time. Using simulations from statistical modeling, topographic information and socio-economic data, they will be able to determine the storm surge risks of a particular area.

“It will be possible, for example, to calculate how many people in the state of Florida could be impacted by the same storm surge, or how many dollars in storm surge related flood damages the state of Florida could incur in a single year if multiple storm surges happen in close succession,” said Wahl.

The work will also focus on critical infrastructure elements to help determine the chances that hospitals, schools, airports or ports will be affected at the same time. These findings will aid in emergency response planning, as well as impact how communities will adapt to future storm surge events.

Wahl received his Ph.D. in civil engineering in at the University of Siegen. Before joining UCF in 2017, he was a postdoc at the University of South Florida and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Southampton. His research focuses on the vulnerability of coastal societies, built infrastructure and fragile ecosystems. He studies changes in sea level, tides, storm surges, ocean waves, freshwater flows and the interactions between them, as well as the associated impacts to explore possible adaptation strategies.