Rockland harbor on Tuesday Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― As coastal communities in Maine begin to plan for a future of rising sea levels and increased flooding it’s important that they have accurate data in hand. But with only 200 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tide stations in the U.S., most of the water level information these communities currently have access to are based on algorithms and not actual observations.

But a local company is trying to help change that.

Rockland-based U.S. Harbors ― which provides coastal weather and tide information ― has partnered with a data and technology company, Divirod, to help coastal communities get access to cost effective data gathering devices so they can track tides, sea level rise and plan for the future. Through the partnership, the companies recently launched a pilot program in Penobscot Bay, in which five communities are testing out Divirod’s water level monitoring technology.

The water level monitoring units have been placed in Belfast, Rockland, Rockport, Camden and St. George. Over the next six months, the Divirod units will provide the towns with tide data and flood alerts. 

A Divirod unit costs about $3,000 annually. Comparatively, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and maintain a NOAA tide station. So, U.S. Harbors is hopeful the technology could be a way for communities to collect accurate tide and sea level rise data on the local level. 

“Local communities need to be able to plan effectively,” U.S. Harbors President Anastasia Fischer said. “With this information, it doesn’t just inform the people who understand data, it informs the general public and it really helps people understand what is going on with the ocean, both from a risk perspective and also just a planning perspective and it gives us a sense of what to expect of the future of our communities.”

Through its website, U.S. Harbors provides user-friendly data on tides to about 11 million people annually, covering about 1,400 harbors nationwide, according to Fischer. Like most weather and tide services, U.S. Harbors uses NOAA data. 

Fischer said U.S. Harbors has been looking for solutions to help fill the gap in local tide data for about the last two years, after seeing an increase in need for more hyper-local information about local flooding and receiving questions about how U.S. Harbors’ tide charts could be used to understand sea level rise. 

“It’s been problematic for us to answer those questions, so the last couple of years I’ve been looking around for solutions to this,” Fischer said. 

Having more local water level data can help communities for several reasons, according to Fischer. First, flood alerts would be able to notify communities when water levels are approaching a point where flooding could occur and allow them to act promptly. Second, it can also help communities better predict storm surge in local areas. 

While those are more immediate benefits, in the long term, being able to aggregate consistent water level data over time will allow communities to understand the pace of sea level rise in specific locations and allow them to plan effectively, Fischer said. 

The Maine Climate Council has recommended that the state plan for sea levels to rise by about 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3.9 feet by 2100. 

The predicted sea level rise will force coastal communities to do things like raise roads and put in place other flood protection measures, according to St. George Select Board Chair Richard Bates. 

By having more location-specific data ― instead of only relying solely on NOAA predictions ― towns will be able to plan more effectively, both Bates and Fischer said. 

“It’s going to be expensive to fix some of this and remediate these problems and I think the more data we can get on this the better,” Bates said. 

A Divirod data collection box, which monitors water level in order to better understand the impacts of climate change on local communities. Credit: Courtesy of Anastasia Fischer

The Divirod units consist of a small box and an antenna mounted on a pole or fixed-object located above the water’s surface, like a seawall or lighthouse. Data on water levels is collected through a triangulation between satellites and the Divirod unit. 

U.S. Harbors is also working with the city of Portland to test out another type of water level sensing device, made by a Hawaii-based company, that uses ultrasound technology. 

Over the course of the Penobscot Bay pilot project, which will conclude in March, U.S. Harbors will check-in with communities and other stakeholders to gain feedback on the technology and data being collected. 

“We’re basically looking at these technologies and with the feedback of local communities, starting to put together a matrix of what solutions are for local communities so they can make their own decisions about what technology they want to use and we’re acting sort of a clearinghouse to give them information about these technologies,” Fischer said. 

In response to the demand they’ve gotten for information on sea level rise and its impact on coastal communities, on Wednesday at 1 p.m., U.S. Harbors is hosting a free virtual conference on the topic. Registration information can be found on U.S. Harbors’ website.