GIS & Ecology Restoration

My name is Todd Davis and this is my last semester at UNC. I am graduating with a major in environmental studies and a GIS minor. Thanks to Corey Adams, I have gotten to work with the Jason Brown, the northern sites manager for the NC Division of Coastal Management. I told Corey during my internship interview that I wanted some more experience using GIS for conservation efforts. Luckily, that is exactly what I have been able to do throughout the semester. Many people may not know or are not familiar with GIS (geographical information system), so I will try my best to explain it. It is basically modern mapmaking that uses satellite images and/or any attributes that can be mapped out that can then be used to visualize and manipulate data. Most of the calculations are distance-based using GPS coordinates hence the geographic in the name.

I was tasked to use past and find my own GIS data to calculate erosion rates on the sound and ocean side of the Currituck Banks Reserve. This reserve is one of three that was managed by Jason including Buxton Woods and Kitty Hawk. Unfortunately, Jason moved jobs to Raleigh very early into my internship so I never got to meet him. However, he still helped guide me with the many GIS problems that ultimately arise with any project. I know GIS is not for everyone, but I wholeheartedly believe the common cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words. In my case, I am able to use maps to show information and data in a much more creative and intuitive way than the inferior graph.

I was able to spend a cool, windy day to visit the Currituck Banks Reserve in person.

I learned that working with a GIS system such as ArcMap uses a lot of problem-solving. Anyone who has used GIS or really any computer-based software knows that problem-solving is a very useful skill in data analysis. There were many problems that came up with using a new shoreline analysis extension that I have had no previous experience with, but my mentor Jason was always by his phone with great advice.

Jason along with my classes this semester have taught me the importance of marshes for the estuarine ecosystems. Marshes have been studied extensively and is a key wetland ecosystem because they can help grow in elevation with sea level rise, slow shoreline erosion, and improve water quality. I am glad that I was able to map erosion rates over a 10 year period for the sound and ocean (but also saddened that the whole estuarine study area in Currituck Banks is eroding).

One example of a finished map from my internship using GIS

I am very happy with my role in the internship as well as the capstone to be able to use GIS and make maps that have real world implications. Since there is no current northern sites manager, my results for the internship will be sent to the research director in Beaufort, NC. It will be used as a basis for locations of future marsh restoration projects in the Currituck Banks Reserve.

My time at the OBX and UNC as a whole is coming to an end very soon. I do not think it has hit me yet, but boy am I glad to be doing class outside every day and interning for the DCM instead of ending it with a full semester of online class. I will probably spend the rest of the night applying for more jobs in the triangle area with the help of this internship tying a perfect bow on my ecology restoration experience.

~ Todd Davis, UNC Class of 2020

Getting Ready for the Home Stretch

This week did not start or end like it usually does. We had to plan and adapt for collecting more data for our research project. Initially, we only had one day to collect and analyze water quality data from the Nags Head wells. Since we already had two days of data collection about a month ago before and after a rain event, we wanted to keep the trend going.

Lauren’s leadership skills shined as she helped organize the extra day of sampling over the weekend before Monday. Many of the students were also willing to adapt by sacrificing a day usually reserved for internships to collect the water quality data right after a rain event. It took a lot of organizing and teamwork, but this field site group excels at selflessness and working extra hard for the betterment of the group.

Tuesday went normally as we met in our outdoor classroom for recitation for Andy’s and Linda’s class. We had a fun activity in Linda’s class where the class split into groups and controlled our own fishing fleet to help us understand fisheries management. However, it was every group for themselves and the fishery market collapsed from us buying too many boats and overfishing. Whoops! I think the class as a whole took away from the activity that is very important to have restrictions and regulations for commercial fishing to help sustain business as well as the ecosystem.

On Wednesday, we took samples and analyzed the water quality again for our second round of dry measurements. I enjoyed being able to sample rather than analyze in the lab again. I think it helps to take part in every aspect of the capstone to make it easier to understand and write our final report.

The script was completely changed for Thursday. Instead of meeting for our research project, Lindsay decided it was a great day to finally take our boat trip! We have been trying to do this ecology lab since the beginning of the semester, but the weather has never been on our side. So instead of our regularly scheduled programming, we got to take a boat ride on a beautiful day and measure water qualities at different depths. We explored three different locations around Roanoke island and took measurements at equal-interval depths to compare the locations with indicators such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen.

Lindsay and Corey made the day even better with their knowledge of the sound and harbor in Wanchese. They were able to answer every question about any boat on the dime and how they use the resources in the sound differently. I also learned of a wholesale fish market called O’neal’s in Wanchese, which I will be checking out in the very near future!


Our instructors were gracious in giving us Friday off for a mental health day. I think it came at a perfect time because our final exams, internships, and final project are all coming to an end soon. An extra day to recuperate was perfect for us to get ready for a busy end-of-semester schedule.

This week goes to show that the field site is able to adapt just like the island itself to stressors whether it be physically or mentally.

The students I have had the pleasure of meeting here have made the semester so much more enjoyable. Even with social distancing, we are still able to hang out and have a good time at the house. I thought it would be hard to relate to the other students because I am the only male, but I have not felt excluded in the slightest. I honestly never thought my final semester in college would be spent in the outer banks, but I can’t see how it could be even remotely better stuck inside with online class everyday.

Also, the instructors here are unlike any I have ever met. They actually let the students have a say in the day-to-day schedule. They could have easily told us that we could not do an extra sampling day this past week, but rather they really listen and respond to our considerations. Even with the pandemic still affecting all of us in some way, the instructors here have been so enthusiastic and help us in every step of the way towards our final project.


~ Todd Davis (Class of 2020)