Yesterday, I sat at my desk taking in the view of Croatan Sound from my office window, white caps whipped up by a cold northern blow, the waves reflecting the dim sunlight and crashing on the shore…orderly chaos. Hard to not see the liking to this past year, 2020. As the year comes to a close, it is difficult to put 2020 into words, the rush of feelings and emotions, the challenges faced by so many, the loss, a growing divide…yes, a bit overwhelming. But, today, as I write, the Sound outside my window has changed, calmer with the winter gray seeming to invite me out for a paddle or to cast a line, and this change outside my window seems to reflect my message…the end of one journey is simply the beginning to the next! There is an irresistible sentiment to get 2020 behind us, move on, just make it to 2021, a fresh start. As I, like so many, struggle with the countless changes from the passing year, consider the start of a new, a recent ballad by Jamie Cullen, Endings are Beginnings, softly rings in my ear…
“If the start is just the finish Then maybe we should keep moving…”
Yes, let’s keep moving, keep looking forward, seeking ways to improve, to make a positive imprint on ourselves, our friends, neighbors and community! If 2020 has shown me anything, it is the resilience, strength, and sheer perseverance of our CSI/ICP community and the whole Pirate Nation. The many accomplishments across our program is a product of teamwork, persistence, and trust! Together we have grown our research, retooled our teaching portfolio, and developed new engaging programing for our community. We took on the challenges of 2020, from our own virtual worlds, and continued our mission - fostering and facilitating interdisciplinary scientific exploration, discovery, and education! Although a storm blew through, we simply danced with the waves! Now, as the sea begins to calm, we continue our incredible journey!
Like previous issues of CoastLines, we want to provide a window into some of the great work of our staff, students and scientists. Integrated Coastal Programs continues to expand its touch on coastal systems, and we are excited to get you involved! Trust me, there is something for you here…whether it is part of our undergraduate programming on ECU’s Outer Banks Campus, the hands-on learning for you and your kids with Kitchen Science, or an opportunity to meet and learn more about the research conducted by our wonderful scientist in our new series ‘Meet a Scientist’. Take a moment and learn how you can engage and be inspired by the ocean…Robert Wylan said it best, “The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.”
2021, here we come!
See you in the New Year,
Hats Off to Dr. Sid Mitra
Dr. Siddhartha (Sid) Mitra has quite a collection of hats. There’s the one he wears as Program Director of the Integrated Coastal Sciences Ph.D. Program in the Department of Coastal Studies (DCS). And the one as Professor in ECU’s Department of Geological Sciences. Plus, the ones for various other appointments, including the ECU Task Force (which was responsible for assembling the founding members of the DCS) and the search committee for DCS cluster hires. And now, Dr. Mitra has donned yet another hat, as Interim Chair of the ECU DCS.
On the research side of things, Dr. Mitra’s interests include understanding how natural organic matter, as well as anthropogenic organic contaminants, cycle in the environment. He studies topics such as: coastal carbon sequestration, geological evidence of fires, pharmaceutical and personal care product fate and transport in the environment, and lipid residues analysis in ancient pottery.
As Dr. Mitra takes on the role of Interim Chair of ECU DCS, he shares his ambitious goal, stating, “The opportunity to lead DCS as its Interim Chair aligns with one of my strategic goals, which is elevating ECU’s coastal research community to be the best integrative coastal science program in the country.”
Outer Banks Field Site Adapts During COVID-19
A semester like no other. That is an apt description of this year’s UNC Institute for the Environment’s Outer Banks Field Site (OBXFS) experience. While most state schools, including UNC and ECU, were forced to “go remote” for much of the Fall, the 10 UNC students enrolled in the OBXFS were fortunate to proceed with in-person, socially distanced, education. Despite a shortened timeframe and many COVID restrictions, the students managed to carry a full course load, participate in a local internship, and explore the Outer Banks. All while maintaining a positive attitude.
The field site’s unique setting and the group’s small size made it a bit easier to accommodate the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Strict measures were in place to comply with the 3 W’s (wear, wait, wash), adhere to symptom and temperature checks, and engage in frequent cleaning and disinfection of work and common areas. Weather permitting, classes were held outside throughout the entire semester. Indoors, the students were confined to specific spaces. The usual convenience and camaraderie of field trips in the 15-passenger van succumbed to students driving their own vehicles.
Emma Bancroft, a Kitty Hawk native and junior Environmental Science major, summed it up, “It’s hard to think about what we would be doing if [the pandemic] wasn’t happening… But at the same time, I’m thankful we still get to do things in person, and without that, it would take away the whole point of this field site. We get a lot more out of it.”
The Capstone project is always at the center of the semester experience. This year’s topic was the final installation of a 3-year project investigating the interactions between septic systems and groundwater in the town of Nags Head. The students spent time in the field and in the lab collecting and processing water samples to determine the extent of septic system-groundwater interactions. Also included was a human dimensions aspect whereby residents were requested to participate in a survey that was used to assess their level of awareness, risk perception, and practices regarding septic tank systems and groundwater contamination from wastewater. Once the field work and surveys were complete, the students analyzed the data and developed conclusions.
The semester ended with a public, virtual presentation of the Capstone report, entitled: What Lies Beneath: A Socio-ecological Case Study of Septic Systems in Nags Head. Here they described their methods, findings, and interpretations. The students agreed that the Capstone provided a great research experience as well as the opportunity for collaborative learning.
Bri Thompson (far right), a junior double-majoring in Environmental Studies and Public Policy explains, “When you work on something [this] long, with different writing, explanation, and organization styles, you get good experience for how the world works. Things are not always going to go your way, and you have to be open to compromise.”
Natalie Ollis (left), a junior Environmental Studies, Biology, and Business Administration major, believes the semester provided a greater appreciation for those, including faculty at CSI, who are working to understand environmental challenges.
An Environmental Studies major, Todd Davis (right) remarked, “I have found a strong sense of community with the other students and the places we have explored. We [were] all here to learn and experience the world around us in these weird times.”
“I know that OBXFS holds a very special place in my heart and in the heart of my peers,” says Lauren Colonair. “We were able to not only learn but apply our new knowledge in so many useful ways. We became a part of a community that welcomed us with open arms and provided us with support and a space to grow over the course of the semester. Our instructors acted not only as educators, but as an extended family, which was integral to the experience. This program has become a key part of my educational experience…. and [I] will always be thankful for CSI and the OBXFS program.”
Dr. Lindsay Dubbs, Co-Director of the OBXFS, stated, “The 2020 OBXFS was a fall semester I will never forget, and not just because of the changes we had to implement due to COVID-19. This was a great group of students who were dedicated to learning, completing an excellent project together, and keeping one another and our community safe. They made a challenging semester rewarding and enjoyable.”
Dr. Andy Keeler: A Fond Farewell to Our Quick-Witted Friend
Dr. Jake Hochard said it best, “Working with Andy is like caffeinating through osmosis.” All who know Dr. Andy Keeler would have to agree with that vivid characterization. “He’s always energetic, lighthearted, and ready to set the gold standard of quick and witty sarcasm,” continued Dr. Hochard, a former colleague of Keeler's at CSI, now at the University of Wyoming.
Over the past five years, Dr. Jim Morley, a fisheries ecologist, has been researching the benefits of oyster leases as a potential artificial aquatic habitat source. Dr. Morley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at East Carolina University and is located at the Coastal Studies Institute, ECU’s Outer Banks Campus.
Although there has been discussion that installation of oyster aquaculture farms in estuarine systems pose a threat to seagrass, Dr. Morley believes the ecosystem benefits of the farms outweigh those concerns. Yielding to his inquisitive nature as a scientist, he set out to prove it.
And so, an extension of Dr. Morley’s previous work was begun with the aid of his Ph.D. student, Andrew McMains.
First item on the agenda, a casting call for fish that would normally thrive in natural habitats akin to what an oyster reef provides. That distinction went to the Sheepshead, with its winning school-picture-day-smile. “They associate very tightly to structure,” McMains said. Sheepshead feed on the organisms and vegetation that grow on the pilings and culture gear making up the oyster reef.
Next up, find an oyster farmer willing to allow his oyster lease to be used as a lab. Enter Jay Styron of Cedar Island Bay. Mr. Styron operates a lease about an hour away from the marine lab where Mr. McMains was working. In support of scientific research, he graciously offered his lease for study.
How does one go about tracking this odd Sheepshead fish with its set of human-like teeth? The situation calls for a little underwater intelligence via implementation of an internal acoustic telemetry tag. This gadget is a powerful tool used to gather large amounts of data that help to better understand behavior and habitat needs. In short, the tags work when sound (acoustics) is used to relay information across open space (telemetry). Unique sound pulses are heard and understood by the underwater tracking stations (receivers). External tags are not viable as they are prone to being knocked off as the fish cavort around the structure.
Between methods used in previous studies, and outside help from veterinary professionals, an efficient and safe procedure was followed to surgically tag 27 fish. Once the appropriate time required for recovery was met, the fish were transported to the edge of the reef, released back into the water, and the date and time were recorded.
Dr. Morley’s research contributes to our understanding of the effects of oyster leases on natural habitat and will influence sustainable management of resources, such as Sheepshead, in North Carolina. In the future, he plans to continue work on the impacts of oyster leases on marine life. “I would like to do a similar project with a predator, like a flounder, in an estuary where there are lots of oyster farms, to see how the predators use the broader ecosystem, in terms of leases and non-leased areas,” Dr. Morley said.
In the meantime, we’ll grab a fishing pole and check out some of the local oyster reefs.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Gently Down the (Gulf) Stream: "The Duffy"
Miss Caroline may not win a beauty pageant, but as far as Dr. Michael Muglia (Assistant Research Professor) is concerned, she is a sight to behold. He first laid eyes on her in Noank, a small seaside village in the town of Groton, Connecticut. Dr. Muglia was instantly smitten and knew she was “the one.” He promptly arranged for Miss Caroline to leave her home on the Mystic River and begin a new, exciting life in Wanchese, NC.
Miss Caroline is CSI’s research vessel. She is a Duffy, a boat known for excellent seaworthiness and a brand revered and long-established in the marine industry. With offshore, nearshore, and inshore capabilities, and some serious after-market add-ons, she meets all of Dr. Muglia’s and his NC Renewable Ocean Energy Program (NCROEP) team’s needs while conducting research on the high seas. The boat has been upgraded with an A-frame, a hydraulic deck winch with 2000 lb. capacity, 1000 hp Caterpillar diesel engine, custom through-hull Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) compartments, and an equipment-launching sled. And despite the added weight of these extra components, the vessel zips along at a cruising speed of 17 knots.
An ADCP is a critical tool for determining information about biological, chemical, and physical properties of the ocean. The device uses sound waves to measure the speed and direction of currents throughout the water column. The 75 and 300 kilohertz ADCPs installed on the Miss Caroline can make continuous measurements while steaming. And there are onboard computer servers that operate the instruments and archive observations, continuous salinity, and temperature measurements from the boat dock at CSI, all the way across the Gulf Stream.
The custom designed A-frame structure allows for deploying and recovering scientific instruments such as buoys, bottom instrumented pods, and anchors. Features like this have led to Miss Caroline earning quite the reputation as an intrepid research vessel. Dr. Muglia fields inquiries from outside organizations clamoring for the opportunity to collaborate on projects. Miss Caroline can deliver scientists and their equipment to the Gulf Stream in a few hours at relatively low cost and is able to maneuver through the shallow waters of Oregon Inlet.
Dr. Muglia recalls the early, adventurous days of the NCROEP relying on a 28-foot Privateer to ferry researchers across the deep depths of the Atlantic Ocean, collecting observations along an eight mile transect near the edge of the continental shelf. The safety and stability that Miss Caroline provides is a welcome and appreciated upgrade.
“It’s not much to look at,” says Dr. Muglia, “but it’s a tank to work on.” He declares his best days are spent with his crew, surrounded by the mesmerizing beauty of the ocean, learning evermore about the fascinating Gulf Stream current, aboard the Miss Caroline – a real dreamboat.
A Meeting (Place) of the Minds: Student Collaboratory
Colorful collegiate collaboratory. Try saying that three times fast! This tongue twister describes the newly reconfigured space that thoughtfully addresses students’ needs outside of the traditional classroom setting. It is a place where unlike individual learning, students can collaborate and capitalize on their classmates’ unique resources and skills, where they interact by sharing experiences. Here, peer relationships are fostered, different perspectives are introduced and considered, and critical thinking skills are honed.
It is a welcoming environment where students can relax, socialize, and develop their interpersonal skills and their self-awareness. Here, they can engage with each other, working in pairs or small groups to discuss concepts, share ideas, work on team projects, and find solutions to problems.
There are multiple desktop computers for easy access to continue research and information gathering and wide screen TVs for virtual meetings or for viewing entertaining or instructional videos.
A wall of windows floods the room with natural light and offers a stunning view of the surrounding marsh and the Croatan Sound. Bright, comfortable furniture invites the opportunity for reflection or a stimulating conversation. An inspiring setting and space where students can take a breather, search for understanding, learn from one another, develop the next critical coastal research instrument, and enjoy spending time together in the process. Proving that some of the best collaborations occur outside of the classroom.
Sounds Geek to Me: Coastal Computational Lab
Incoming! Giant data sets!
Bring it on! The new Coastal Computational Lab can handle it. We’re talking eight high-processing computer workstations featuring Dual 8-core Xeon processors with enough computational power to analyze massive, complex data sets and to parse complex numerical models. Each computer connects into a dedicated 10 Gigabit network for access to a centralized multi-terabyte storage system. Researchers will utilize this fast link for seamless upload and immediate backup of critical field data. For example, 20 Gigabytes of data can be safely secured from an external drive within 2.5 minutes. Collaboration is a (coastal) breeze in this geeked-out work environment!
With our new computing capability providing optimum application performance, the portfolio of software applications reads like something in a spy novel: XBeach, SWAN, Delft3D, CH3D, SEDZLJ, MATLAB, SPSS, R, ArcGIS, etc. CSI Researchers will swiftly clue in on new insights, approaches, and solutions; form accurate predictive models; and deliver informed decisions. Processing and interpreting such a broad mix of data and imagery generated by these programs would be nearly impossible, or at the very least frustratingly cumbersome, using traditional methods.
Eager to put the souped-up computer system through its paces, their ambitious project to-do list includes the study of such topics as the effects of beach evolution on nesting sea turtles, assessing shoreline and coastal change, coastal hazard modeling, sediment movement, understanding the beneficial use of dredge-spoil for marsh restoration, and quantifying spatial variations in the effect of mangrove forests for flood risk reduction.
The lab is outfitted with ergonomic chairs in bright shades and desks separated by upholstered panels to offer a bit of sound muffling and privacy. Whether researchers choose to focus and work individually or prefer to interact and collaborate among other lab users, the space is conducive to both. PhD students, postdoctoral scholars, and research associates at CSI are welcome to utilize the lab as well.
Bonus: Investing in this upgraded technology provides researchers with an edge when applying for competitive grants that require such efforts. Now, that’s a win-win!
What on Earth? Terrestrial Laser Scanner
How about placing an order of the beach “to go?” Using a Terrestrial Laser Scanner (TLS), Dr. David Lagomasino (Assistant Professor, Department of Coastal Studies) can scan an entire section of the beach in a matter of seconds and create a 3-D computer model so detailed it shows tire tracks and footprints. Would you like sunscreen with that?
Excited by this amazing technology, Dr. Lagomasino says, “Really I have taken the beach home with me and put it on the computer.”
The TLS is a powerful tool that collects high-resolution and high-accuracy data for topographic and morphological studies. Using laser beams, advanced sensors, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Inertial Measurement Units (IMU), receiver electronics, and photodetectors, laser scanners collect information in the form of point cloud data which consists of millions of 3D coordinates. When the point cloud data are processed, they form a digital representation of the scanned surfaces, structures, and landscapes, demonstrating the dimensions and spatial relationships of topographic features and structures in full living color.
Laser scanning is fast and reduces the time and human effort needed to complete surveys. For surveying vast landscapes, laser scanning systems can be mounted onto land-based or aerial vehicles. With vehicle-mounted or drone systems, point cloud data can be gathered from even the most inaccessible or dangerous areas.
Dr. Lagomasino’s utilization of the TLS in his study of coastal resilience and vulnerability, helps provide him with meaningful information, resulting in improved understanding and innovative techniques to influence coastal management practices. It is a handy device to have in this researcher’s toolbox.
Remote Possibilities: The Z-Boat
At first glance, the Z-Boat looks like the coolest toy you ever hoped for. With its sunny yellow hull and diminutive size, it’s easy to imagine a couple of action figure passengers aboard, enjoying a cruise around the harbor. Although the fun factor can’t be denied, the Z-Boat is a powerful research apparatus capable of providing significant assistance in data gathering. With its single-beam echo sounder using sonar technology to transmit sound waves, the vessel provides bathymetric surveys – the measuring of water depths.
This unmanned aquatic drone can be controlled via remote control. or, alternatively, the vessel can be given a pre-programmed route in a specific area to follow autonomously. Allowing the boat to accomplish its task independently eliminates the painstaking task of steering it in a certain route for hours, thus freeing up time to complete other project work. This feature is also beneficial for projects that involve long term (multi-hour) deployments. The remote-control attribute is useful for precise maneuvering and allows for quick and easy data collection when the area being surveyed is less extensive.
The Z-Boat allows for easy and safe surveying/data collection in areas closest to the shore, shoals, and rocks. In most cases, due to safety concerns, these places do not have recorded depth measurements as they are shallow, difficult to navigate, and potentially dangerous for traditional modes of surveying. This vessel is highly maneuverable and able to navigate close to piers, pilings, and the shoreline. The Z-boat has proven to be particularly helpful on the sound side of Pea Island, an area that is quite shallow and tricky to navigate, even with a Jet Ski.
The time and effort required to deploy a boat can be avoided as researchers stay safe and dry on shore while this spunky little vessel travels through the waterways for a quick or large-scale survey. Which leads us to say, the Z-Boat is Z-Best!