Coastal Mapping Basics

Waves breaking along the New Jersey shoreline


The effects of tides, combined with large amounts of water and waves from storms make coastal areas some of the most at-risk areas when it comes to flooding.  To identify and map coastal flood hazards accurately, many factors must be taken into account, such as the amount of development in the area, the types and strength of storms that historically have affected the area, and the onshore and offshore topography.  This section provides an overview of the steps involved to identify and map the coastal flood hazards shown on the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM).  The FIRM is used to determine flood insurance requirements for residents and where floodplain development regulations apply in a community. 
Beach sand along the New Jersey coast


Each FIRM shows Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs), or the areas subject to flooding by a storm or flood event that has a one percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year.  The SFHA includes all ‘A’ and ‘V’ FIRM zones, the most common being:  A, AO, AH, AE, VE, and V.  For a full listing of flood zones with detailed descriptions, visit FEMA’s Flood Zones webpageInsurance rates and building requirements are tied to SFHA boundaries and the Base Flood Elevations (BFEs) that are established for these areas and shown on the FIRM.  A BFE is the water level expected in the SFHA for a one-percent-annual-chance flood event.  To accurately model and map coastal SFHAs and BFEs, study teams made up of engineers, coastal scientists, surveyors, and mapping specialists conduct coastal flood studies that include storm surge analysis and overland wave modeling.  The process is described below. 


The coastal models used in developing a coastal flood study (discussed further below) need to account for land features throughout the study area such as coastline bluffs, dunes, and beaches. FEMA uses cross-shore transects, or lines that are drawn on maps and are placed at intervals along the shoreline of open coast areas and bays, to help focus data collection efforts.  Field reconnaissance is an important part of the coastal flood study process and is performed by coastal scientists who collect land use and shoreline information that cannot be determined only from studying aerial imagery. The field reconnaissance process involves physically visiting locations along the planned transects to assess and verify the following: 
    • Shoreline information including type and beach condition; presence and condition of shore protection structures; 
    • Structure information including type of building, and approximate first floor elevation; 
    • Vegetation information including type and other characteristics; and 
    • Marsh information including grass type(s), grass density, and height.

Get more information in the Transect Data and Field Reconnaissance fact sheet.

 Mesh, or high resolution grid, developed when modeling storm surge using the ADCIRC computer model taken from a computer screen.
A mesh, or high resolution grid, developed when modeling storm surge 

Coastal flooding is usually caused by coastal storms, including tropical storms, hurricanes, and nor’easters.  Storm surge is the amount of water, combined with the effect of normal tides that is pushed towards the shore during a storm.  The height of the storm surge is driven by many variables, such as the strength and size of the storm, as well as how quickly and the direction in which the storm moves.  Using information from historical storms that have affected the study area, a representative set of storm events are determined and then modeled.  The storm surge elevations generated from this model are then used to determine the probability of a storm surge event of a given magnitude (for example, a storm that has a one percent chance of occurring in a given year). 

Storm surge analyses for FEMA coastal flood studies are often performed using the
ADCIRC (ADvanced CIRCulation) coastal circulation and storm surge computer model in conjunction with the Simulating Waves Nearshore (SWAN) computer model.  Once complete, the storm surge analysis will result in the development of stillwater elevations for the one-percent-annual-chance flood event.   A stillwater elevation does not take into account all effects from waves coming ashore during a storm event.  Therefore, a separate overland wave modeling analysis is needed in addition to the storm surge analysis to accurately determine coastal SFHAs and BFEs.

Get more information storm surge in the Storm Surge GIS Data fact sheet.


In addition to storm surge, waves play an important role in coastal flooding.  An overland wave modeling analysis is required to fully evaluate the effect that waves have on coastal areas during a flood event.  FEMA typically uses a computer simulation model called the Wave Height Analysis for Flood Insurance Studies (WHAFIS) to perform overland wave modeling.  This model takes into account water depth, wind speed, vegetative cover, building density, and other factors to predict the heights of waves, which plays an important role in determining coastal BFEs and flood zones.  Wave runup and wave setup (discussed below) are also important factors in overland wave modeling.
Wave runup. The rush of water that extends inland when waves come ashore is called ‘wave runup.’  The overland wave analysis will determine the elevations to which wave runup extends during a storm event.  These elevations may be higher than the stillwater elevations computed as part of the storm surge analysis. 
Wave setup. In addition to the effects of wave runup and the computed storm surge stillwater elevation, there is also an increase in the water level caused by waves breaking ashore during a storm event.  This increase in the water level is called ‘wave setup’, which can be a significant factor in determining coastal BFEs.  Wave setup is affected by the height of the waves, the speed at which waves approach the shore, and the slope of the ground near the shore.

Erosion (or, the removal of soil) due to storms and the presence of coastal structures, such as seawalls are also taken into account when overland wave modeling is performed.
  A diagram showing the coastal storm surge stillwater elevation and the added effects of wave setup and wave runup.
The coastal storm surge stillwater elevation (SWEL) and
the added effects of wave setup and wave runup.

The Coastal Hazard Analysis Modeling Program (CHAMP) is a software program used by coastal engineers to conduct coastal flood hazard assessments for Flood Insurance Studies. Using CHAMP, coastal engineers evaluate storm-induced erosion, wave height and wave runup analyses, plot summary graphics of the results, and create summary tables and reports.  Learn more by reading the CHAMP Database Interpretation fact sheet.

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Detail of a coastal Flood Insurance Rate Map showing coastal flood zones

Detail from a coastal FIRM.


Once the coastal storm surge analysis and overland wave modeling are complete, the most up-to-date topographic information available will be used to map the coastal SFHA boundaries based on the results of these analyses.  BFEs will also be added to the FIRM at this point in the mapping process. The different flood risk zones that comprise the coastal SFHA - ‘V’ zones and ‘A’ zones (described below), will also be delineated.  

Coastal High Hazard Areas (V Zones)

Coastal high hazard areas, designated as V zones on the FIRM, are the areas of the coastal floodplain subject to the highest risk.  Typically, this is the area where the computed wave heights for the base (one-percent-annual-chance) flood are 3 feet or more.  V zones are subject to more stringent building requirements and different flood insurance rates than other zones shown on the FIRM because these areas are exposed to a higher level of risk than other coastal flooding areas.  

Coastal A Zones

Portions of the SFHA landward of a V zone (i.e., areas where wave heights are computed as less than 3 feet) are mapped as ‘A’ zones on the FIRM.  While the wave forces in coastal A zones are not as severe as those in V zones, the capacity for the damage or destruction of buildings is still present.
Diagram:  The Coastal Flood Zone
V zones are portions of the SFHA where wave heights are greater than three feet.  These areas are subject to more stringent building requirements than coastal A zones because the risk from coastal flooding is greater.
Coastal BFEs take into account both the storm surge 'stillwater' elevation and additional effects from waves.  

  A diagram indicating the different FEMA coastal mapping zones, including V zones, coastal A zones, and how the storm surge stillwater elevation and wave effects are added to determine coastal Base Flood Elevations. 

Primary Frontal Dunes

A Primary Frontal Dune (PFD) is a continuous or nearly continuous mound or ridge of sand with relatively steep seaward and landward slopes immediately landward of and adjacent to the beach. PFDs are subject to erosion and may be vulnerable to overtopping or breaching from high water levels and waves during coastal storms. Because dunes can help reduce coastal flood hazards, the National Flood Insurance Program has established special mapping, insurance, and floodplain management criteria designed to help communities protect dunes. For example, dunes above the 1% annual chance flood level are included in the SFHA (typically mapped as a VE Zone on a FIRM), which protects PFDs from manmade impacts or physical alterations that could increase potential flood damage.  For more information about PFDs, see FEMA’s fact sheet on the topic.

Limit of Moderate Wave Action

An additional area that may be shown on coastal FIRMs for informational purposes is the Limit of Moderate Wave Action (LiMWA).  The LiMWA identifies areas that will be affected by waves with a 1.5 foot wave height or greater within the coastal A zone.  While FEMA currently does not require special floodplain management standards or flood insurance purchase requirements based on LiMWA delineations, it is likely that properties and structures within the LiMWA will receive substantial damage from wave action during a one-percent-annual-chance flood event.  As a result, communities are encouraged to adopt the more stringent building construction standards applicable for V Zones in these areas.  View an animation that explains the LiMWA and the different coastal flood zones through FEMA's Media Library.
Diagram:  The Limit of Moderate Wave Action (LiMWA) 
The LiMWA is the area within the coastal A zone where wave heights are between 1.5 and 3 feet.  These areas will likely be subject to substantial damage during a one-percent-annual chance flood event. 

A diagram indicating the different FEMA coastal flood mapping zones, including the V zone, A zone and Limit of Moderate Wave Action (LiMWA) area. The LiMWA delimits the coastal A zone where wave heights are between 1.5 and 3 feet. These areas will likely be subject to substantial damage during a one-percent-annual chance flood event.


More information about the nation’s coastal resources, including additional information on coastal flood risk and storm surge, can be found on NOAA’s State of the Coast website or through the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve online Coastal Training ProgramFor general questions about FEMA flood hazard mapping, contact the FEMA Map Information eXchange For specific questions about the New Jersey and New York coastal flood study, contact us through our online form.