Hurricane Irma Storm Surge in Tampa Bay

Blog post submitted by Mark Luther

Hurricane Irma caused only a minimal storm surge in Tampa Bay. Storm surge is the difference between predicted (or astronomical) tidal water level and the observed or actual water level (called storm tide) and is what causes the majority of damage in a land falling hurricane.  In relatively shallow coastal waters like those of the Tampa Bay region, wind blowing across the water surface drags water in the direction of the wind.  If it piles up against the coastline, it causes a storm surge.  We operate a network of water level gauges and wind measurement sites around the bay in cooperation with the NOAA National Ocean Service called the Tampa Bay Physical Oceanographic Real Time System (TBPORTS; see  Here is what our observations from TBPORTS tell us about the surge from Irma.

As Irma approached the southwest coast of Florida, forecasters were unsure if the center of the storm would stay just offshore or would move inland. The predictions of storm surge at that time assumed a worst case scenario where the eye of the storm stayed just offshore of Tampa Bay, with possible storm surge of 8 to 12 feet above predicted tide or 5 to 9 feet above ground level.  Had that happened, Tampa Bay would have been devastated.  Fortunately for us, the storm moved inland and weakened quickly once it went over land.

The eye of the storm tracked well to the east of the bay.  By the time that the eye of the storm passed to our north and winds turned to the west (about 5 am EDT), we were only seeing 30 to 34 knot sustained wind speeds from the WNW with gusts to just under 40 knots. By 10 am the winds were 25 to 28 knots from WNW with occasional gusts to 32 knots.  By 5 pm wind speeds were less than 20 knots, still from W to WNW. The wind never went south of west. If the wind had come from the southwest, the surge would have been greater, as wind would be pushing water straight up the bay. The storm also moved quickly through the area so that the winds didn’t have time to push as much water toward the coast and up the bay. For comparison, in Hurricane Francis in 2004, the eye of the storm stalled just to the northwest of the bay region and we saw sustained winds of 50+ knots from the southwest for approximately 12 to 18 hours. That drove a surge of about 6 ft. into the St. Petersburg area (flooding my garage) and an even larger surge into downtown Tampa.


The most striking aspect of the storm surge from Irma was the large negative surge seen as the storm approached. Strong winds from the east to northeast pushed water out of the bay, leading to water levels in the northern parts of the bay that were more than 6 feet lower than the predicted tide level.  In Irma, the strongest wind speed from the north at our mid-bay site was 56 knots from the NNE gusting to 65 knots. Those NE to N winds drove the water out of the bay as expected. That factor may have delayed the return of water into the bay but not by much. Water flows downhill pretty fast.  In the plots below, you see the water level rises to predicted tide level very quickly once the winds turned west of north, and then first goes above predicted water level at 4 am at the Port Manatee gauge.  Maximum storm surge occurred at Port Manatee of 2.17 ft at 11:18 am, at Old Port Tampa (south of Gandy Bridge) of 2.35 ft at 11:54 am, at St. Petersburg of 2.17 ft at 12:36 pm, and at McKay Bay (Port of Tampa) of 3.08 ft at 1:24 pm, all very nearly coincident with low tide. If the maximum surge had occurred at or near high tide, coastal flooding would have been 2 to 2.5 feet greater than what we observed.

We were very lucky to have escaped major damage.


St Petersburg_WL_revised



Ocean heat content helps drive Irma

Contributed by Nick Shay (

Given favorable atmospheric conditions, Irma has intensified to category 5 status in the past few days. Central to this intensity increase is the relatively high ocean heat content values (80-120 kJ cm-2) as shown in the image relative to the projected track of Irma based on satellite remote sensing. As she approaches the Florida Straits, the high heat content water coming through the Yucatan Straits into the Gulf is essentially taking a quick right turn out of the Gulf of Mexico since the Loop Current is now retracted after separating a large warm core eddy in the eastern Gulf. The exiting water from the Gulf of Mexico forms the core of the Florida Current. Given the large current speeds of 2 m s-1 as observed with High Frequency radar measurements, this current advects the warm water through the Straits forming the core of the Gulf Stream further north in the SECOORA footprint. Given both the current strength and depth of the warm water, any ocean mixing induced by hurricane force winds is arrested.  Thus, there is very little sea surface temperature cooling in the remotely sensed signals and the air-sea fluxes are allowing Irma the storm to intensify (i.e. there is more deep warm water to help intensify Irma via the air-sea fluxes).


Note the white space is the figure is Cay Sal Bank which is very shallow to calculate ocean heat content from our 2.5 layer model. The water is quite warm over that feature and the ocean heat content is not zero.

An ocean experiment is planned using a combination of drifting buoys and APEX-EM floats to measure the ocean response to Irma in collaboration with SIO and AOML scientists. Details will be forthcoming.  However, the predicted track continues to be problematic at the present time due to the weakening of the subtropical ridge over the Atlantic and the possible influence of a short wave trough that is currently digging southward. The bottom line is it is a race to see what happens with the track of this very powerful hurricane that has approached its maximum potential intensity over high ocean heat content water.

The above Irma figure is updated daily with altimetry data and track information on the Atlantic Ocean website:

New tool to share info on Southeast US coastal ocean

I’m excited about this new opportunity for experts in the SECOORA region to share information about major events, such as Hurricane Matthew.  Many in the region are under threat from this storm.  The SECOORA team sends our best wishes to be prepared and stay safe.

Additionally, the storm presents an opportunity for experts to share information, knowledge and data based on their expert scientific perspective.  I’m hopeful this blog will provide a learning opportunity for all of us that are watching and studying the storm as well as the models, data and other tools that are available to predict what might happen next.

Stay safe … and let’s get blogging!

Debra Hernandez, Executive Director, SECOORA