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!