Opportunity in Motion

Grants boost post-Hurricane Florence research for UNCW scientists.

By Venita Jenkins

As Hurricane Florence barreled toward the coast of North Carolina in September 2018, UNCW scientists saw an opportunity in motion. While most in the area were focused on the storm’s path, a few industrious Seahawks recognized the need to secure funding for storm-related research.

Scientists deployed experiments and researched topics from seagrass resilience to coastal vulnerability with the aid of Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants from the National Science Foundation. The grants, totaling $200,210, were instrumental in collecting time-sensitive, perishable data during and after Hurricane Florence.

“Without this grant we would not have been able to make these measurements or answer our main research questions,” said Joe Long, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences. He and his team used funding to install equipment and collect data from Masonboro Island. The research was driven by a need to document and understand the immediate impact of Hurricane Florence to local barrier islands and observe the way the islands naturally recover after an extreme storm.

The research experience was also a great opportunity for students to meaningfully apply their classroom knowledge, Long added. Long’s research team comprises Andrea Hawkes and Lynn Leonard, faculty in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences and the UNCW Center for Marine Science; Devon Eulie, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Center for Marine Science; and Eman Ghoneim, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences.
Assistant professor Jessie Jarvis and adjunct professor Judson W. Kenworthy, both in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology, are working with researchers from UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Texas Austin to examine the impact of hurricanes on seagrass resilience.

“This storm event provided an opportunity to see how hurricanes affected the resilience of meadows that were already feeling negative effects of higher temperatures associated with climate change,” said Jarvis. “Seagrasses are extremely important, as they provide habitat and nursery areas for coastal and recreational fisheries, help improve local water quality conditions and bury carbon, which can have a positive impact on climate change,” she said. It’s difficult to restore seagrass habitats once they are lost.

Jarvis’ study leveraged a 40-year data set with the collection of post-hurricane impacts. UNCW researchers are also working with scientists at the University of Texas Austin Marine Science Institute to compare the post-Hurricane Florence dataset to the post-Hurricane Harvey dataset.

“By contrasting Harvey and Florence responses, we will produce more generalizable models of how species traits and landscape context predict coastal ecological resilience to storms,” said Jarvis.
Environmental sciences assistant professor Joni “Osku” Backstrom used funds to lead research focusing on how offshore geology and coastal characteristics influence storm response on beaches. The research will help significantly with coastal management decision-making, especially since storm activity and sea level are both increasing due to climate change, Backstrom said.

Researchers began collecting pre- and post-storm beach profile data and beach samples across southeast North Carolina following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“I realized that the coastal and offshore region must have a significant influence on the different impacts we saw across multiple beaches,” she said. Scientists collected water depths, acoustic data and sediment grab samples across three locations off Wrightsville Beach.

“This research is important because if we can find a good correlation between our offshore observations and numerical modeling results, we can apply these techniques to other coastal regions worldwide and predict what might happen under a wide range of scenarios.”
Environmental sciences assistant professors Devon Eulie and Huili Hao examined how the resilience of coastal waterfront properties and infrastructure to Hurricane Florence varies as a function of past and current shore protection decisions.

“One of the challenges for managing and protecting coastal communities is that threats to community resilience span multiple temporal and spatial scales,” said Eulie. “For example, erosion can occur locally and quickly during a single storm event or slowly across an entire coastal region. The cumulative impact of shore protection decision-making over many years can play a role in the resilience of a coastal community. “

Researchers used geographic information systems science, emerging low-cost remote sensing and aerial mapping technologies and waterfront homeowner surveys to assess the immediate impact of Hurricane Florence on shoreline condition and infrastructure. They also evaluated relationships between past and current shore protection approaches and patterns in observed shoreline change and infrastructure damage resulting from Hurricane Florence.

Researchers are still gathering responses from coastal residents and property owners survey and are in the process of analyzing the large amount of field data collected post-Hurricane Florence.

“The results of this study could be used to directly inform future management decisions, educate coastal residents and property owners on shore-zone conservation and management, and enable development of more cost-effective monitoring procedures,” Eulie said.

Image above: Echosounding survey with environmental sciences graduate student Anna Miller offshore of Wrightsville Beach, NC.