Current research in coastal sciences

LTER program
The Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) LTER aims to develop a predictive understanding of how long-term environmental change and short-term disturbances control the dynamic nature of coastal barrier landscapes. The VCR is a heterogeneous landscape comprised of mainland watersheds, tidal marshes, lagoons, and barrier islands. The project uses a combination of long-term monitoring and experiments, shorter-term process-level studies, and modeling. Current research is organized around 3 questions: (A) How do long-term drivers of change (climate, rising sea level, and land-use change) and short-term disturbance events interact to alter ecosystem dynamics and state change, and how is their effect modified by internal processes and feedbacks at the local scale? (B) How do fluxes of organisms and materials across the landscape influence ecosystem dynamics and state change? (C) In the future, what will be the structure of the landscape and what processes will drive ecological state change?

Seagrass restoration in the Virginia Coast Reserve
We are collaborating with colleagues at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to restore seagrasses to coastal lagoons in the VCR. In 2006 and 2007 we broadcast over 3 million seagrass seeds in a 509-acre "set aside" obtained from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. This restoration builds on our 20-year database of processes in the lagoons in the absence of seagrass, and gives us the opportunity to determine experimentally the ecosystem-level effects of a rapid change back to the original seagrass-vegetated state. The new sites are part of a chronosequence of restored seagrass meadows in the Virginia coastal lagoons in which we study the effects of the seagrass return on nutrient cycling, biodiversity, water quality and sediment transport.

Marsh - tidal-flat boundary dynamics
Tidal flats and salt marshes lie within specific ranges of elevation in shallow intertidal areas, whereas intermediate elevations are less frequent. We are investigating the effect of wave-induced sediment resuspension and marsh-grass colonization on the bimodal distribution of elevations, and the influence of external drivers like sea-level rise, subsidence, and storms on the repartitioning of intertidal area between salt marshes and tidal flats. The project has modeling and field components; our field sites are in a coastal bays on the Virginia coast.

Marsh studies

Coral studies
Coral reefs are of great importance to the marine environment due to their tremendous productivity and immense diversity of marine organisms. Current research topics related to reef health and sustainability include (1) the impact of waves and turbulent flow patterns on food supply and nutrient uptake in coral reefs of the Red Sea, (2) dispersion and settlement of larvae within Hawaiian reefs, and (3) carbonate and oxygen fluxes over reef structures.

Waterbirds in coastal habitats
Current research focuses on (1) sea-level rise, marsh elevation changes, and waterbird habitat; part of the LTER monitoring, (2) waterbird nesting population monitoring as part of a VA cooperative avian coastal partnership, (3) dredged material island restoration in Chesapeake Bay - wildlife monitoring, (4) multi-site USFWS refuge study-evaluation of marsh management methods and their ecological effects in the northeastern US.

Barrier Island Evolution
Barrier islands are found throughout the world and are dominant coastal landforms along much of the U.S. east coast. Because these low-lying features are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and decreasing rates of sediment supply, their future existence may be threatened. Current investigations, involving the application of computational models and field observations, focus on improving our understanding of how barrier island islands have evolved in the past and on exploring how barrier islands may evolve in the future. Study areas currently include the North Carolina Outer Banks and the Chandeleur Islands of Louisiana.

Biomechanics of marine organisms
Research in biomechanics combines fluid dynamics, structural mechanics and animal behavior to understand how marine organisms interact with their environment. Knowledge of the physics behind organism design and function allows us to better understand ecological interactions within marine communities as well as evolutionary biology. Some examples of biomechanics research currently being conducted are: food detection and mate signalling by lobsters and blue crabs, swimming behavior of marine larvae, and morphological adaptation of corals to varying flow environments.

Florida Bay