Back it up, Florence!

Our time at the Outer Banks was cut short last week thanks to Hurricane Florence, a storm we thought would reach category 4 before making landfall below Cape Hatteras. Thankfully for our home here (Friends of Elizabeth II), our school (the Coastal Studies Institute), and all of the locals we have come to know and love (professors, internship mentors, and of course the inside and outside Jeffs), Florence weakened significantly before reaching the coast and took a turn west for the southern end of the state and South Carolina.

We typically have a full day of internships on Mondays, but last week many of us were too preoccupied with evacuation plans. My mentor at the North Carolina Coastal Federation let us leave early to prepare, as some of the other employees lived as far south as Hatteras Island where mandatory evacuation went into effect that day. Many of my peers and I had planned to go to Chapel Hill until the storm passed, but once Florence turned from her original path, we had to make other arrangements. I returned to Shelby, North Carolina, but some of my peers traveled as far as Asheville, Washington DC, and Baltimore to escape Florence’s wrath.

We were told to prepare for up to two weeks away from the Outer Banks, so I took plenty of clothes home with me (mostly dirty laundry to do, oops) as well as any items I absolutely can’t live without or risk being damaged in the storm. For me, this included my favorite postcards and photos on my wall, my antique Polaroid camera, and about half of my book collection. Others took their food (Danesha) and their guinea pigs (Emma S.)!

Back in Shelby, we mainly got consistent rain with few strong winds. The saturated ground caused many large trees to topple over, however. Here is one that fell on the home beside of us, putting a hole in the roof.

My peers further east had a much more intense experience with Florence, such as Autumn Pollard, whose hallway filled with water.

And Emma Szczesiul, whose backyard looked more like a lake.

Of course, UNC students found a way to make a meme out of this storm. Student Facebook pages were flooded (no pun intended) with events titled things like “Have Grayson Allen trip Hurrican Florence,” “Do the hokey pokey at Florence so she’ll turn herself around,” and “Take Hurricane Florence and Push it Somewhere Else.”

Luckily, I was able to reunite with my classmates after only one week of being home. In all seriousness, we dodged a bullet in terms of damage from this storm, and the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other major weather events will only increase unless environmental conditions change drastically. Hurricanes and flooding are only two side effects of climate change, but they are arguably the most relevant to our home here on the Outer Banks.


The Real Storm Came After Florence…

During our orientation at the OBX Field Site we participated in a group dynamics workshop in order to make us more comfortable with working in larger groups. This was particularly aimed at creating a more aware environment during our capstone work. The capstone is a large research project undertaken by OBXFS students every year. We learned about the different stages of group formation, as described by Bruce Tucker. They are Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. As a collective, we realized we hit the storming phase after we got back from Florence.

Team development stages

The capstone is one project for all of the students at the field site. Our capstone this year is on wastewater in Nags Head. How does it affect the environment in storm water or by entering the groundwater? How do residents and business owners perceive it? Do people maintain their wastewater?

Our project is split into two groups: human dimensions and ecology. The human dimensions side is focusing on the people in Nags Head and what they think about the wastewater issues in this area through interviews. The ecology side is focusing on water samples to prove or disprove contamination.

So, essentially, all 13 of us in this 2018 class are tasked with completing one research project together. This might sound as though the process would become easier from more people, but with so many smart, determined, and independent pieces working together, we are bound to hit some road bumps.

It might seem daunting to take on all of this work, but we are more than determined to handle it as a team. Even more important, we still make time to hit the beach!

Chillin’ on the beach!

Perhaps spending even more time together could end poorly, but we are proving that fun activities outside the classroom are the best way to combat any ill feelings from the classroom!

Enjoying the sunset at Jockey’s Ridge after a full day  of capstone work!

From sitting around our kitchen table and figuring out each others’ love languages, to hitting the gym together, to playing cards while waiting for baby sea turtles to hatch, getting through this week has shown that we are capable of overcoming any storms thrown our way–take that, Florence!

The Dog Days are Coming

I’m writing this post as we are currently being evacuated from the Outer Banks due to the incoming Hurricane Florence. While we had a great start to classes last week, we are now awaiting the return to our new home until the storm passes. To overview last week, which seemed to fly by, we had a Labor Day cookout at our house, the first day for our 3 courses (Coastal Economics, Coastal Management, and Ecology), the first day of internships, and our first lab out on the boat. I’ll go into more detail about each of those a little later.

Labor Day weekend was a fun time for all of us. A few of us made the trek down to see the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in North America. It has about 260 stairs and was quite exhausting to climb, but the view was definitely worth it. The climb definitely required a break to catch our breath every few dozen stairs.

View from the bottom

After a long, tiring climb to the top. The view was beautiful (from left to right: Conor Howachyn, Emma Szczesiul, Lynn Tran, Marium Konsouh, Danesha Byron, Alex Kellogg)

Sunday night was a relatively relaxing night as we watched movies and played a lot of Rock Band. On Labor Day, a few of us had the chance to go to the local water park H2OBX, on the mainland, as our house manager had some extra tickets. No pictures from that unfortunately, but we had a great time despite it being extremely crowded because it was the last day of the season. We rounded the weekend off with a Labor Day feast. We used the charcoal grill in our backyard for the first, and despite some early difficulties (including the flames going out a few times and some meat falling through the grate, because we are environmental majors, not grill masters), the end result was delicious. The food included turkey burgers, veggie burgers, grilled bell peppers, mac and cheese, and grilled peaches for dessert. We also had a delicious salad made by Alex. Most of the food is pictured below.

We were chilling hard indeed, Snapchat. You can tell I’m enjoying that burger.

On Tuesday we finally began classes after what seemed like 2 very long weeks of orientation (we still haven’t fully grasped that we are living in this beautiful place!). We started off with a Coastal Resource Economics taught by Dr. Andy Keeler. While many of us had already taken a basic Economics course, the first day, along with Thursday’s class, were mainly dedicated to review of basic economics concepts and ideas. Following that class, we had our Sustainable Coastal Management class, taught by Dr. Linda D’Anna. This class is more focused on human dimensions of coastal usage and takes a socio-cultural approach to coastal management. We will also be learning about collection of qualitative data, which will be a huge part of our Capstone project.

After a lunch break, we had a Capstone, where our professors offered critiques and suggestions on the proposals we had submitted the week prior, and gave us some good practical feedback that will help us narrow down what we will be researching.

Wednesday was our first day of internships! All of us were placed in different internships, and it was interesting to hear about everyone’s experiences after our first day. The internships vary from positions at the District Attorney’s office, the Town of Nags Head, an environmental consulting firm, the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, and many more. My internship is at the latter. The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research is a non-profit dedicated to logging the various dolphins seen in the Sound through photo identification and tracking their movements up and down the East Coast. It promotes conservation as well as education of the bottlenose dolphins. They are actually able to identify the dolphins based on distinctive markings on their dorsal fins, and enter them into the national database FinBase. Some of the “famous” dolphins include Onion, who has been spotted as early as 1990, and Flounder.

My first day consisted of going on two dolphin tours, which included mostly tourists itching to see some dolphins. Both sightings did not disappoint, as we saw around 12-15 dolphins on each survey. I was also tasked with recording the data, including how many dolphins we saw, their activities, any recognizable dolphins we saw, as well as things like salinity and water temperature. The data sheet is pictured below, along with a few of the dolphins we saw.

Don’t ask me which dolphins are pictured. I am not an expert on the identification part (yet).

Thursday was another day of classes for us, as we had our second day of the Economics and Management classes in the morning, as well as the first day of Coastal and Estuarine Ecology class with Dr. Lindsay Dubbs. This class is one day per week, but Fridays will consist of a lab or field trip (overnight in some cases).

Our first lab of the semester was the following day, as we arrived at the Coastal Studies Institute at 9 AM and boarded a boat to go out on the Sound. We collected water samples, and recorded data from 3 different sites around the Croatan Sound. We spent almost all day on the boat, and it was definitely a fun yet informative experience. We took measurements on water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll A, photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) at multiple depths at each site. We also used something called a Secchi disk to measure the clarity of the water. After visiting the 3 sites, we stopped at a small beach to learn how to take soil cores (which was very difficult) and have some free time to roam around before returning to CSI.

Marium and Emma (respectively) collecting some data

All in all, it was a great first week of classes, and we ended it on a good note by going to First Friday in downtown Manteo, with live music, great food, and beautiful views of the Sound.

We all decided to dress up for the occasion. Only 8 of us are pictured here, as the rest of the group had gone to the beach and met up with us later on in the night. Front row (left to right): Jenn Allen, Elizabeth Kendrick, Kat Bell, Emma Karlok, Emma Szczesiul, Marium Konsouh). Back row: Harris Kopp, Conor Howachyn


Swamps, ropes courses, and planes, oh my!

      Our second week of orienting ourselves to our surroundings here in the Outer Banks proved to be as fun and informative as the first.  A brief overview includes hiking in the swamp, completing the equivalent of most of a 300 level GIS class in one day, and taking turns flying in a tiny plane, but I’ll zoom in closer on some of the highlights.

Monday was our first official Community Advisory Board (CAB) meeting – we all gathered in a meeting room at the Nags Head Woods Preserve and got to know each other over enormous sandwiches, chips, and cookies.  We enjoyed rotating through stations of CAB members to bounce our project ideas off of them and hear where their concerns lay in wastewater management. Following our lunch, a few CAB members and our motley crew of 13 went for a short guided walk through the woods.  With no shortage of “get out me swamp!” references, we saw turtles, snakes, grasshoppers, and lots of spiders.  

Students and CAB members admire snakes, birds, and turtles in Nags Head Woods Preserve.

“Get out me swamp!” – probably someone while I took this picture when we first arrived

On Tuesday, we remembered very fondly the previous day’s exploration in the woods as the day was filled with what Andy’s daughter (and current UNC grad student and GIS expert), Cory, aptly names “GIS headaches.”  We were inside all day, looking at computers for most of it, and very confused for a large majority. I think everytime she asked if we were ‘all good’ my response was a confused ‘no,’ and anytime she asked if anyone needed help she looked straight at me as my hand went up and computer screen filled with things that no one else was looking at.  We can all agree, however,  that finishing the day with somewhat decent-looking, hopefully accurate maps of water temperature, pH, and E. coli in Dare county was an extremely satisfying experience.  The workshop is epitomized in the below picture of Kat:

Kat visually demonstrating how we all were feeling, photo credits to Emma Szczesiul


After such a frustrating day, Wednesday easily ranks as one of the best of the semester so far for me.  From 10AM-3PM we were outside together completing group bonding activities like champs and then climbing like monkeys on the high ropes course.  The course was challenging and incredibly fun – with three vertical levels each consisting of 3 different courses, it’s safe to say most of us finished the day bruised, sore, with huge smiles on our faces. The physically exhausting day was topped off with a wonderfully relaxing evening on the beach.


I don’t think any of us really realized just how soon all of the group dynamics information would become so scarily relevant – but Thursday sure showed us exactly that.  After staying up Wednesday night to finish our individual proposals, we spent Thursday afternoon reading and critiquing each others and then trying to agree on two ideas to expand upon for our group proposals.  There was lots of back and forth, but not as much arguing and stalemate as one might expect from a 13 person group project, luckily we had our handy group dynamics toolbox from the previous days’ workshop to thank for that. After hashing it out a bit at CSI, we met up again at the house to complete and turn in both proposals by 10PM the day before they were due with minimal interpersonal damage sustained, which I count as a group win in my book.


I’ll end this post with a photo series to describe our beautiful Friday morning plane rides over the outer banks.


From left, Danesha, Marium, Autumn, and Jenn begin boarding the five passenger plane.  Jenn and I rock-paper-scissored for the cockpit position.

Autumn and Marium were all smiles with their headsets on just before taking off…


A view of Jockey’s Ridge from above – making it look a lot more flat than it felt climbing up the dunes.


A selfie to commemorate Danesha’s FIRST EVER plane ride!

I find myself constantly needing to remind myself (and anyone who’ll listen) that “We LIVE here!!!!” – looking at this picture is one of those moments

A group picture with our pilot

We talked to this beautiful pup’s owner and pilot in training the entire time the last group was in the air – I think we all came away from the conversation seriously considering getting a pilot’s license.


From left: Danesha, Lynn, Alex, Harris, and Marium leaving the beach.  That’s a wrap on orientation, folks.