June 1, 2018

E6 – The Secret Lives of Tide Gauge Operators

Posted by Shane Hanlon

USS Constitution, construction 1833, in dry dock. Credit: Stefan Talke.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, dozens of men stationed at harbors around the United States would record water levels and send them to a central office in Washington, D.C. where they were used by engineers building the country’s infrastructure. Along with these readings, the tide gauge operators also sent letters detailing their lives at these outposts and the difficulties they faced, from extreme weather to personal dramas.

Stefan Talke, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Portland State University, uncovered these letters as he and his colleagues combed through archives and libraries for tide gauge data to reconstruct to reconstruct mean sea level, tidal processes, and extreme events in cities like New York and Boston. In this episode, hear about the hidden lives of tide gauge operators and how Talke and his colleagues are using the information they find to understand how cities will be affected by rising sea levels due to climate change.

Boston gauge notes. Credit: Stefan Talke.