Spatial and Biogeomorphic Properties of Oligohaline Marshes in Currituck Sound: Implications for Response to Sea-Level Rise

The study is funded by North Carolina Sea Grant’s Community Collaborative Research Grant Program and is part of an ongoing partnership between Chowan University’s Department of Biology, Audubon’s Pine Island Sanctuary (located on the Outer Banks), and the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve.  Led by Bo Dame, Associate Professor of Physical Sciences, Heather McGuire, Professor of Biology and Chair, Department of Biology, and with Robbie Fearn of the National Audubon Society and Brandon Puckett of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve, the project will increase understanding of how marshes in Currituck Sound respond to sea level rise.  Students will be involved in the project through class activities, work-study, and capstone research projects that assume responsibility for a portion of the overall study.    

The project is highlighted in an article titled "Coastal Collaborations" in the summer 2016  issue of Coastwatch magazine.  To read the article, click here.  


Introduction to the Project

The study will involve marshes at two locations, the Currituck Banks Reserve, part of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Audubon’s Pine Island Sanctuary, both located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Detailed habitat mapping and spatial analysis will be conducted along with an examination of variables contributing to elevation change in marshes experiencing sea level rise (including above and below ground biomass, decomposition, and sediment accretion).  Results will inform resource management decisions at both sites. 

Funding from North Carolina Sea grant will allow the team to significantly expand their partnership.  Currently, Chowan University's Department of Biology conducts an annual field ecology course on the Outer Banks that is based out of the Pine Island facility and utilizes Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve in Corolla and Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve in Kitty Hawk.  For several years, there has been discussion of expanding the activities to include a research component.  Support from North Carolina Sea Grant will provide field equipment and instrumentation allowing the team to conduct research useful for resource management activities and get students involved in meaningful field experiences.

The team's study will increase understanding in a region where little data is currently available, provide opportunities for under-represented groups in coastal research, and will lay the foundation for future work.  The team is already discussing plans to continue the project beyond the 1-year funding time frame through periodic habitat mapping and field studies to document change and establish trends.  There are also plans to expand activities including, documenting the impact of dune/beach migration into adjacent vegetation and aquatic communities, prioritizing sites for restoring living shorelines, and developing metrics to measure success in habitat restoration.  All of these efforts will involve student participation, and could not be initiated without support from North Carolina Sea Grant. 

Fieldwork will begin on May 8th and throughout the project, there will be updates posted. 

Students from our annual Field Ecology class spent much of their week on the Outer Banks getting the wetland study off the ground.  Class participants included: Dristi Bhandari (‘16), Charles Blackburn (‘17), Neriah Howard (‘19), Tyler Richards (‘17), and Kemper Sutton (’18).  They collected samples using vegetation quadrats and sediment cores, sorted vegetation samples by species, collected material to measure decomposition rates, and started the wetland mapping component of the study.   

Fieldwork continued on the Sea Grant project this week with biology majors Dristi Bhandari (’16) and Jomecka Deloatch (’17) working with Drs. McGuire and Dame. Initial vegetation sampling, coring, and sediment accretion plots were completed in marshes at Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve, and work began in marshes at Audubon’s Pine Island Sanctuary. The field crew had some interesting wildlife sightings including a Least Bittern nest and a juvenile Carolina watersnake.

Students took some well-deserved time off while Drs. McGuire and Dame completed the initial marsh plot work at Audubon's Pine Island Sanctuary.

Drs. McGuire and Dame visited the vegetation plots and worked on the wetland mapping component of the study.

Project partners were visited in the field by staff from UNC-TV who will feature the study on an upcoming segment of NC Science Now (  The piece is expected to air in late August or September.