September 12, 2022

Storm Surge Science

Let’s learn about sea-level rise and storm surge right from your kitchen!

If you’ve lived in the Carolinas for a few years, you’ve no doubt experienced the approach of a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. Hurricanes are strong storms that occur in the ocean that can have sustained winds approaching 150 miles per hour! When they come in contact with land, these powerful forces can wreak havoc.

The height of beach season also means it’s the height of hurricane season. Storm surge is the push of water from the ocean that comes in with intense storms and hurricanes.

Storm surge is often the most destructive and deadly impact of a hurricane. Officials order evacuations to help people avoid the rising water along the coast.
But, as oceans grow taller due to climate change, storm surge is stretching farther inland putting more homes, businesses and people at risk, including here in the Carolinas.

Let’s learn more about sea-level rise and storm surge right from your kitchen!

Age range: Elementary, Middle School

Prep time: 5-10 minutes

Learning time: 15 minutes


No matter the source of the scare, the amygdala’s role is the same. The amygdala is like a bridge connecting two very different parts of the brain: the part that controls the body functions you aren’t aware of (like breathing) and the part that “thinks” for you.

This means that when your amygdala gets information that tells you something scary is happening, it can send signals that make your heart race and your breathing get faster, making you feel scared!

  • Paint tray
  • Shells or rocks
  • Sugar cubes
  • Water
  • Blue food coloring
  • Hair dryer or battery powered fan
  • Spoon
  • Modeling clay


1. Let’s build our coastline! Place your rocks and shells on the elevated side of your paint tray. Get creative as you create your beach!

2. Use sugar cubes to make homes and neighborhoods. Stack them along the coast at different locations. Some homes should be very close to the coast, others should be farther inland. Some homes should be taller than others. Be creative!

3. Hypothesize: Which sugar cube homes will be safe from the storm surge? Where is the smartest, most resilient place to build?

4. Dye some water blue; this will help us see the impacts more easily.

5. Pour the water into the deeper half of your paint tray.

6. Now let’s makes some waves! As high tides and storm surges rush the shore, water will rush onto land. Use a hair dryer or battery powered fan to simulate this ocean movement. You can even lightly splash with a spoon to simulate a routine high tide. The sugar cubes, or homes, that get flooded will turn blue and start to fall apart.

7. Analyze what happened. Which homes flooded first? Should you build a sea wall?

8. Try the activity again using modeling clay to create walls to protect your coastline. Does it work? Can a sea wall efficiently protect the homes?

9. Think About It: How can we build climate resilient homes and shores? See how many ways you can fix your model to protect your sugar homes!

Rising Tides and Flooding

Our oceans are growing taller. Globally, oceans have risen 6-8 inches since 1920. U.S. coasts have found 10-12 inches of sea-level rise in the last 100 years.
Scientists project oceans to rise another 10-12 inches just over the next 30 years! That’s nearly a foot more ocean in our lifetimes.

Why is our ocean growing? There are two main causes to sea-level rise: warming oceans and melting glaciers.

As our planet warms from greenhouse gas emissions, the oceans trap 90% of that extra heat. When water warms, it expands and grows. Our heated atmosphere and oceans are also causing glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic to melt, adding even more water to our seas.

Why does this matter? We live on the coast! Higher sea-levels mean more flooding and more intense storm surge. For some communities, it doesn’t even take a hurricane to send the ocean inland.

Sunny day flooding is a term used to describe flooding caused by routine high tides and wave action alone. Inland communities are flooding on sunny days as high tides become higher.

Increased flooding impacts where we live, where we work and who can recover from flooding, especially as it becomes more severe and more common.
Researchers in the Carolinas are working to learn about ways to protect our coast. In most cases, sea walls aren’t as efficient because they cannot keep up with the growing height and intensity of the ocean.

Oysters are great at helping us combat sea-level rise, since they naturally grow vertically with the seas. They can also ease the wave action as it approaches the shore, helping make the biggest waves less intense.

Activity Expansion

Interested in learning more? Pick your favorite beach and look at the interactive links below. Both use data on greenhouse gas emissions, warming temperatures and melting glaciers to make predictions about the changes to our coastline in the coming decades thanks to sea-level rise.

You can pick different scenarios to see how our actions might impact our coastlines. You’ll find more aggressive action to cut greenhouse gases and limit warming will save more of our coast. Worst-case scenarios send the flood line farther inland for many of our coastal communities along the East Coast.

Interactive mapsNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Climate Central.

Think About It: Are you surprised by any of these predictions for your favorite beach? What do you think we can do to become more climate and flood resilient?