Coastal & Marine Systems Understanding marine ecosystems, conservation and governance

Duke Environment is a recognized leader in the study, conservation and governance of coastal and marine environments. Our ongoing mission is to better understand these vital ecosystems through leadership in research, education and exploration.

Oceans support the richest biodiversity on the planet — and cover 70 percent of it. They provide protein-rich food to much of the world, as well as a source of energy, raw materials, and act as a place of solace and enjoyment to many. But oceans are one of our most threatened environments — perhaps, in part, because of our dependence on them. Factors such as pollution, acidification, warming and overfishing are harming our oceans by reducing their biodiversity.

The forward-thinking work being done by Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment continues to yield solutions to our oceans’ greatest challenges — balancing human needs with conservation efforts, and providing science-based policy recommendations to protect these treasures.

By using the most advanced technologies and engaging a wide range of stakeholders, our faculty and students are devising innovative strategies to protect these vital resources. While understanding the ocean’s composition provides knowledge of its role in our global ecosystem, human interaction with marine and coastal species is equally important to informing sustainable solutions. This process requires an interdisciplinary team — both to understand how humans impact our oceans and coasts, and to develop science-based recommendations to mitigate damage and create a healthy balance between people and our environment.

Nicholas School faculty members and industry partners include thought leaders in fields that include marine science, conservation, ecology and policy; ocean, earth and sustainability science, coastal environmental management, and the social sciences. Working in teams across Duke’s campus and beyond, they are able to prepare the next generation of environmental professionals with the knowledge and skills they need to make a greater impact on coastal management and marine systems for tomorrow.

Located near Beaufort, North Carolina, the Duke University Marine Laboratory is the Nicholas School’s coastal campus. Here, Duke faculty and students work together in interdisciplinary teams to understand and address biodiversity in our world’s oceans and coastal habitats. From the 7,000-acre Duke Forest to Grainger Hall on Duke’s Durham campus, the Nicholas School has resources for studying all aspects of the environment.
Understanding marine environmental systems, conservation and governance.

From the depths of the underwater landscape to the ocean shores, you'll find our faculty and students....

Predicting climate change

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) constantly overturns warm and cold water. The associated release of heat to the atmosphere at higher latitudes of the North Atlantic has a major impact on the earth’s climate, climate variability and sustainability of ocean life.AMOC’s critical role inspired the creation of Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Program (OSNAP), an observing system that measures the meridional overturning in the subpolar North Atlantic. Led by Susan Lozier, Ronie-Richelle Garcia-Johnson Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences, the seven-nation effort continuously records the full-water column and fluxes of heat, mass and freshwater. The goal is to better understand our planet as it undergoes change.Dr. Lozier and her colleagues anticipate that OSNAP data will help climatologists refine their models to better predict climate change.

Balancing marine ecosystems with human interaction

Maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems requires a complicated balancing act: the management of plants and marine mammals, predators and prey, habitat structures for reproduction and open waters for migration. Because fish significantly impact both ecological well-being and local, regional and national economies, achieving a balance between ocean sustainability and commercial, subsistence and recreational fishing remains a major challenge in coastal communities worldwide.

Xavier Basurto, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science, is working to better understand the human impact on small-scale fisheries in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. By evaluating the environmental and economic impact on fishery management in the region, Dr. Basurto is identifying key intervention points to support the balance between people and the fish that sustain their livelihoods. This work is informing the development of innovative fishery-management strategies in Mexico and defining approaches for maintaining sustainable fisheries on a global scale.

Understanding the underwater landscape

Understanding the evolution of the underwater ocean landscape is key to understanding both life on earth and the geophysical processes that shape our land and ocean environments. By better defining our ocean geology we are better able to predict coastal change and the future hazards that may impact our coastal areas, ocean resources, and coastal and marine ecosystems. Emily Klein, Professor of Earth Sciences and an ocean geochemistry expert, is leading research aimed at exploring how mid-ocean ridges initiate and evolve in the poorly understood Cocos-Nazca Rift.

A voyage to the Galapagos Triple Junction will allow Dr. Klein’s team to characterize the transition — from initial rifting to seafloor spreading — and the associated fragmentation of ridges into segments. The team will collect data on morphology, gravity and magnetic variations; rock samples for chemical analyses; and water-column data for identifying hydrothermal activity. By learning more about the evolution of mantle melting and melt-delivery systems and their relationship to tectonic segmentation, we can better understand the geological forces that influence the earth’s continuing evolution.

Mapping marine animal migration

Marine animals are not stationary, and in fact must travel great distances throughout their lifetime to fully support their lifecycle and ensure reproductive success. While we understand that marine life displays a wide-range of migratory behaviors, historically we have not considered migration patterns when developing marine conservation plans. To fill in the knowledge gap about the global routes and connected areas of migratory marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles and fish, Pat Halpin, Professor of Marine Geospatial Ecology, and Daniel Dunn, Assistant Research Professor of Marine Science and Conservation, created The Migratory Connectivity in the Ocean (MiCO) system.

Using oceanographic geospatial data from remote sensing imagery, Drs. Halpin and Dunn build predictive species-distribution models, model habitat connectivity and detect space-time patterns in fisheries and wildlife by collecting time-series data. The data assembled by MiCO informs conservation efforts of migratory species; global fisheries and deep-sea mining authorities; the Convention on Biological Diversity; the Convention on Migratory Species; and UNESCO. It also provides a framework for spatial management and conservation on the high seas.

Leveraging technology and innovation

Where there is an opportunity to innovate, you'll find our faculty and students...

Using drone technology to facilitate environmental research and solutions

Lead by David Johnston, Associate Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation Ecology and Director of Blue Devil Drones, the Duke University Marine Lab is using sophisticated drone technology to monitor and address environmental issues such as the impact of lights on U.S. sea-turtle nesting, gray seal populations in Canada, and population structures of humpback whales in Antarctica. The impact of this innovative technology is extensive. In addition to helping coastal communities and wildlife managers rethink the effect of lighting on nesting turtles, Dr. Johnston’s team has enabled researchers to accurately monitor marine-mammal populations and evaluate shorelines after major hurricanes.

Microbial biosensors detect pollutants

An estimated 2,000 new chemicals are introduced into the environment every year, and little is known about the toxicity, natural prevalence or environmental persistence of most of them. The sheer number of potential environmental contaminants makes developing methods to monitor their presence and environmental impact daunting. Moreover, pollutants are not often unique to a single environment. Activities from industrial manufacturing to residential gardening pollute wastewater treatment plants, streams and estuaries. Dana Hunt, Assistant Professor of Microbial Ecology, is harnessing the power of naturally occurring marine microbes and microbial communities for use as highly sensitive bioindicators of chemical pollutants. The microbes respond to pollutants with unique gene-expression profiles, providing an innovative solution to monitoring chemicals that present a potential risk to humans and the environment.

Microalgae, the future of food

Current estimates indicate that the world will likely require a 70 percent increase in protein-based food by 2050. Zackary Johnson, Arthur P. Kaupe Associate Professor of Molecular Biology in Marine Science, believes one solution may lie in microscopic algae (“microalgae”), unicellular organisms found in salt water. Microalgae grow rapidly, require no arable land and little (to zero) freshwater and aren’t as fossil fuel-intensive as industrial agriculture. They also are very nutritious because of their high content of protein, beneficial amino acids and micronutrients. Dr. Johnson leads the Marine AlGae Industrialization Consortium (MAGIC), a partnership with university and industry colleagues. The group has been developing microalgae as feed for a variety of animals, and it is also exploring the use of microalgae as a milk-protein replacement for human consumption.

Mapping the coastal-coral reef interface

Coral reefs are valuable for both their rich biodiversity and the critical role they play in protecting coastlines from the damaging effects of wave action and tropical storms. James Hench, Associate Professor of Oceanography, has worked extensively to better understand the mediating factors of coral community structure and function, as well as to define the effects of external drivers such as human disturbance and global climate change on the resilience of these essential underwater structures.

Creating Future Leaders in Coastal Environmental Management

What does it take to foster our next generation of marine biologist and conservationists?

A personal connection to these environments - and immersion in the science that's clarifying and information solutions to our most complex challenges.

The Nicholas School's coastal and marine program offerings include:

  • A Master of Environmental Management, with natural and social science concentrations pertinent to coastal environmental management
  • Master’s certificates in Community- Based Environmental Management, Geospatial Analysis, and Environmental Innovation & Entrepreneurship
  • Doctoral programs that address conservation from multidisciplinary perspectives
  • An undergraduate Certificate in Marine Science and Conservation Leadership

To gain practical experience, Nicholas students intern with conservation organizations that include Environmental Defense Fund, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Natural Resource Defense Council, North Carolina Coastal Federation, Oceana, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and The Nature Conservancy. Working in cross-disciplinary, faculty-student teams, Nicholas School students participate in faculty research around the world. They also play an active role in their education by inviting conservation leaders to on-campus workshops and conferences to discuss and work to solve coastal and marine challenges and take part in on-campus workshops and conferences attended by conservation leaders, during which they discuss and work to solve coastal and marine.

The Nicholas School also attracts International scholars and conservation practitioners through the Duke’s Global Fellows in Marine Conservation program that focuses on interdisciplinary problem solving using biophysical and social science to address real world environmental problems. Upon graduation, participants return home with the knowledge needed to address real world environmental challenges and access to mini-grant funds to implement solutions in their own communities.
Nicholas School graduates are highly sought after by conservation organizations and government agencies seeking leadership in protecting wildlife and habitats. Our alumni, in turn, serve today’s Nicholas students as mentors, internship hosts and research partners and can be found working with conservation organizations around the world, at every level: local, state, national, and international.

While the emerging field of conservation finance is making careers more lucrative, the compensation for many conservation jobs remains modest. The Nicholas School aims to provide as much financial aid as possible to minimize students’ debt so they can afford to pursue their passions and make a difference in this crucial field.

To learn more about Coastal and Marine Systems research and education at the Nicholas School, and to find out how you can help us protect the magnificent creatures that share this planet with us, visit nicholas.duke.edu


Donovan Loh, Scottee Cantrell, Duke Photograph, Scott Taylor Photography, Rooster Media Productions. Inc.,Bobbi Lesser, Hannah Blondin, Elihu Dietz, Jiaxin Gao, Laurence Kruger, Michael Rinaldi, Serkan Erdern, Cristina Martinez, Tasfia Nayem, William Weightman, Sarah Poulin

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Nicholas School of the Environment


Donovan Loh Scottee Cantrell Duke Photograph Scott Taylor Photography Rooster Media Productions. Inc. Bobbi Lesser Hannah Blondin Elihu Dietz Jiaxin Gao Laurence Kruger Michael Rinaldi Serkan Erdern Cristina Martinez Tasfia Nayem William Weightman Sarah Poulin

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