Sandspur Island

My name is Jack, and I am a sophomore Environmental Science major from Wilmington, North Carolina. My internship is with the one and only Lindsay Dubbs, doing research here at CSI. I am working on the Salinity Gradient Energy Project, which attempts to assess the environmental impacts of potential Reverse Electrodialysis (RED) power plants on surrounding ecosystems.

You might be asking yourself, what the heck is reverse electrodialysis? Well, put simply, its a new form of renewable energy that generates power by taking advantage of the natural movement of water molecules from low to high salinity.

RED power plants would have to be placed in areas where there is really fresh water right next to really salty water. They would have to take in water from both sources, and also let water out somewhere. Unfortunately, that would impact the surrounding environment, and the Salinity Gradient Energy Project is an attempt to assess how large that impact is.

My part in the whole project is attempting to characterize the phytoplankton community in the locations that have been proposed as eligible sites by graduate student Hannah Palko. To do this, I used High Performance Liquid Chromatography, which allowed me to identify and quantify the pigments in water samples, which can then be used to make inferences about the species of plankton present in the sample.

But I am not writing this post to talk to you about chemistry. I understand that not everyone finds that as interesting as I do. I am writing to tell you about my experience in the field collecting samples for analysis.

We woke up on Sunday morning at roughly 5 o’clock. The Outer Banks Marathon was taking place, so all the roads were going to be closed by 6:30. We had to get an early start if we were going to make it out of Wanchese.

The long drive down to our sample sites consisted of breakfast at Bojangles, music, and conversation. We stopped at our first sample location and could not have been more thankful for how beautiful the day was.

After gathering our data and samples, we headed off to Beaufort for lunch at Plaza Mexico. It was amazing. Endless chips and salsa, cheap, affordable vegetarian options. Needless to say, I was in heaven.

Our next sampling location was right up the street, just north of downtown Beaufort, at a public dock. After collecting our samples, we decided to kayak across the channel to the Rachel Carson Reserve, or as I like to call it, “sandspur island.”

Growing up in Wilmington, I was accustomed to getting sandspurs on my shoes, on my socks, on everything really. But since it was mid November, I figured sandspur season was over. Boy was I wrong. I decided to go barefoot to the island because I didn’t want my shoes to get wet. Looking back, that was a terrible decision.

Claire, Ted and Hannah were calmly exploring around the island, looking for wild horses, while I was busy standing in one place trying to get sandspurs out of my bare feet. In some spots there were no sandspurs, and I could freely move around. In others, they literally covered the ground.

On the way back to the kayaks, I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked Ted and Hannah to carry me back. I felt so bad for being so dumb and not wearing shoes, but it ended up being a good team building exercise.

All in all, it was a great day in the field, and going out and seeing the sample sites that I had been analyzing in the lab was a wonderful learning experience.

Swamped in the Swamp

Well not really a swamp, more of a coastal salt marsh, but I digress. If you had told me at the beginning of August that within a month I would be stuck up to my knees in muck, constantly pricked by omnipresent black needle rush, and have spent more time laying out Home Depot tiles then ever before while loving every moment of it, I would say you definitely don’t know me. As it turns out though, early-August-Alex apparently didn’t know me that well either because I’ve been doing just that for the last

semester while having an amazing time. My name is Alexander Smith, I am a Junior Environmental Science major, and my internship is conducting research under the guidance of Dr. Reide Corbett in the costal marsh right outside CSI.

My internship is rather equally divided between spending a lot of time in the field and analyzing the data I collected in the field, but, seeing as images of graphs and excel sheets can only be so exciting for so long, I’m going to focus a tad bit more on my fieldwork. The coastal marsh is really an indescribable environment to find yourself in (I say right before I attempt to describe it). The combination of an ever-present sulfurous smell, hidden canals that could dunk you in water up to your waste, and seemingly vengeful vegetation make the habitat truly unique to be and work in.

My research out in the marsh focuses on accretion and erosion rates and how these rates are affected by variables such as weather patterns, elevation, and distance from shore. Thankfully, a researcher at CSI about a year ago conducted a similar study so I am able to compare my results and use their methods as a starting point. When I do field work, I get to use a myriad of different tools, from something as high-tech as a RTK Trimble unit (which costs more than my rent) to bathroom tiles, to gather my data. The RTK unit is used so that I can get an accurate measure of the location of the shoreline, which I can then compare with previous measurements, as well as the overall elevation of the coastal marsh. The comparison of shoreline data is extremely significant to my research because that comparison can be used to determine the mean erosion and erosion rate along the shore of the coastal marsh.

The bathroom tiles are used so that I can measure sediment accretion at specific sites within the marsh. To do this, I’ve laid approximately three tiles at each site (there are a total of 13 sites within the study area) flush with the ground. This way any organic or inorganic material that would normally fall onto these areas is now on the tile. About every 2 to 3 weeks, I go out into the field and collect all the material that has collected on the tiles using such sophisticated instruments as water and a somewhat knife shaped piece of metal. In the lab I dehydrate and then combust the soil to get measure of the organic and inorganic makeup of the collected samples. From here, I can use time, size of the tile, and soil composition to determine the accretion rates at those specific sites.

This data collection culminates into a huge pool of data that I then get to analyze and visualize. Currently, I am about knee deep in this process, which is turning out to be more frustrating, but also more gratifying, than I imagined it would be. Being able to both collect and analyze data under loose supervision is something that I never thought I’d be doing at this point in my life. I can not thank CSI, Dr. Corbett, and the OBXFS program enough for letting me do this internship. Not only am I doing something fun and interesting, but I am doing something that I hope to do throughout my future.

Nags Head Woods 2: Caught on Camera

Last Friday, after an adrenaline filled Ecology quiz, we took a trip to Nags Head Woods. This is our second time out in the woods as a class, but the unique quality of the environment there has definitely not grown old. The last thing I associate the Outer Banks with is a forest of any kind so to have a maritime forest on the same strip of road that has beach accesses is incredible.

Our trip began there with a visit to the unofficial mascot of Nags Head Woods: Fergie the dog. Unfortunately, she somehow managed to escape our cameras. Fergie belongs to the more human representative of Nags Head Woods Aaron McCall. After our short orientation with Fergie, Aaron began his presentation where he emphasized the uniqueness of where we were as well as the importance of the Nature Conservancy, an NGO that focuses on preserving land and waters throughout the nation.

Nags Head woods is located between Jockey’s Ridge and Run Hill, two large living dunes. The presence of these dunes is extremely important for the persistence and formation of the woods. They provide a buffer for both wind and salt spray that allows for sensitive vegetation to colonize and grow in these woods. At one point in the wood’s history, the land was planned to be developed into a subdivision, but after that fell through, the land was donated to the Nature Conservancy. Now it provides cleared hiking trails and viewing stations that people can easily access for both recreational and scientific work.

After the orientation, Julia, our resident Nags Head Woods aficionado, had us collect a few wildlife cameras that she had deployed as part of her internship. These wildlife cameras had collected no photos since she had deployed them so we decided to move them northward in hopes that these new locations would boast some interesting photos; Julia has made it clear that she has more than enough pictures of squirrels so we’re really hoping for a coyote or possum. Fingers crossed!

Holly White is the Leslie Knope of Nags Head

If you read the title of this blog post and didn’t get the reference – I highly recommend you check out the show Parks and Recreation immediately. It’s a about a lovable group of local government employees who work in the Parks and Recreation department in their town hall and make dreams come true.  Not only is it prime entertainment, but you might end up learning a little bit about the workings of local government while you watch!

While we’re on the subject of lovable government employees, it seems fitting to introduce some of Nags Head’s newest interns: Erika Munshi (me!) and Viktor Agabekov! But we’re not just any interns, we’re working in the world-renowned Nags Head Planning Department! And just like in Parks and Rec, the department wouldn’t run without the oversight of a brilliant leader like Leslie Knope. In our case, this fearless leader is Holly White – Principal Town Planner and our mentor for the semester!

Holly’s ongoing projects include creating a comprehensive town plan called FOCUS Nags Head and putting together a Coastal Resiliency Plan called VCAPS (Vulnerability, Consequences, and Adaptation Planning Scenarios) <- feel free to click on either project to learn more!

Over the past few months, we’ve been able to dive in to both the FOCUS Nags Head project and VCAPS by doing research, consulting  experts, and talking to residents. We’ve also been analyzing the proposed FEMA flood maps and groundtruthing flood damage from past storms in order to see which neighborhoods and properties may be affected by a change in flood zones.

In addition to our work with FOCUS and VCAPS, we are also working with Andrea Hitt from the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island to put together some messaging to send out to both permanent and temporary residents to inform them on how they can make their home more resilient.

Overall, my internship experience at the Town of Nags Head has been incredibly informative. Not only have I been able to better understand how local government works, but I’ve been able to work on a project that will help communities all over North Carolina’s  coast better prepare for sea level rise and increased storm events. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity and I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester!

The OBX Ghost Town

Last week we had our very last Capstone retreat. This time it was a day long journey south down the outer banks to the little town of Ocracoke and beyond. Along the way were stops at the Hatteras Lighthouse, the Orange Blossom Cafe (we couldn’t miss the infamously huge apple uglies), and NCCAT building in Ocracoke. But the main reason, at least in my view, for trek down south was across the Ocracoke inlet in the abandoned town of Portsmouth, NC.

Courtesy of our friend Alton of NCCAT, we were able make the trek over to the deserted island on a rattling old boat. Lindsay of course had made sure we were prepared, and then some, for the conditions on the island but everyone had just assumed that it was not nearly as bad as she described. After all, how could there be any mosquitos at the end of October, even if it is the Outer Banks?

So we arrive, having no real idea of what we are going to find on this island we didn’t know existed before last week. As we approached the village, one major characteristic stuck out; every building in the area were still in great condition. No one had lived there in over 40 years, but the park service had kept up the appearances of the place for visitors like us. Of course we understood the reasoning for the upkeep, as it was a very historically significant place, but at the same time it seemed to be some post-apocalyptic scene out of a TV show. The pristine graveyards definitely did not help the matter as well. All I could think about while entering the town was what it was like at night, and whether or not the ghosts that inevitably lived here were friendly.

And right on queue, I got dragged back to reality by mosquitos the size of quarters and a grin of Lindsay’s face that screamed, “I told you so”. We pressed on through the town and then into the woods following some trail that we had seen Alton disappear down. Finally we arrived at the life saving station, and realize that yes, this place can indeed get more creepy. An empty house full of replica lifesaving equipment was just the thing to get my mind going again. We went up to the top of the station where Alton had just cleared of wasps with nothing but a hat and took in the view of the whole island. The place was both beautiful and scary at the same time.

We stayed up there for a while, but eventually came down in order to make it back in time for the ferry. The boat ride went back as I sat back thinking about how lucky I am to be out here seeing things like this. We continued to do other things for the rest of the day, including doing actual Capstone work, but I was thinking the whole time when I’ll be able to spend the night in Portsmouth and see if my imagination was right.