Data Tells Storm Story

Data Tells Storm Story

For a community hit by a hurricane, recovery can be a long, traumatic process that begins with understanding the storm’s impacts. The sooner that happens, the sooner communities can address the changes and work to become more resilient in the future. 

To help address this need, a group of National Estuarine Research Reserves are teaming up to transform monitoring data into “Storm Stories” to help communities visualize changes in the local environment after a hurricane hits.

“We already track storm events through the System-Wide Monitoring Program [SWMP], which provides data on short-term variability and long-term trends related to hurricane impacts,” says Kaitlyn Dietz, project co-lead and coastal training program coordinator at Florida’s GTM Reserve. “We saw an opportunity to translate that data into visual stories using infographics, charts, and photos to make it more accessible for local communities.”

Storm Stories leverage wind, rainfall, water depth, dissolved oxygen, and salinity data to describe changes in local estuaries and the time it takes for them to recover from a storm. They put this analysis in the context of information about the storm’s degree and duration, along with comparisons to other storms and physical impacts seen after the storm.

“This is exactly why Reserves were created—to study changes in coastal environments and use what they learn to help communities manage change,” observes Rebecca Roth, Executive Director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association (NERRA). “Nineteen Reserves have been affected by hurricanes in the last decade alone. Because they experience these events alongside the communities they support, Reserves are living laboratories that are well-positioned to develop tools like this that are really needed.”

The Storm Stories project is a collaboration of educators, coastal trainers, and scientists at the Delaware, North Carolina, North Inlet-Winyah Bay, ACE Basin, Jobos Bay, and GTM Reserves. With funding and support from the NERRS Science Collaborative, the team is working with Limnotech to develop easy-to-generate templates for printable and online ArcGIS Storm Stories, along with a statistical package to help Reserves quickly analyze data and create graphs and tables. These resources will be available in spring 2022.

“While the Southeast and Caribbean Reserves created Storm Stories for local hurricanes, we hope that any Reserve affected by an extreme weather event will be able to easily adapt these tools to create locally relevant stories for their communities using SWMP data,” says Dietz.

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Marshes and Mangroves on the Move

Marshes and Mangroves on the Move

A marsh in Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve. The white cubes are warming chambers, which simulate future conditions where mangrove trees may overtake the marsh. Photos courtesy of the WETFEET Project.

The Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve protects more than 76,000 acres of vital habitat, 42 miles of Northeast Florida’s coast, and one important border—the line between the mangroves to the south and the salt marshes to the north. As the climate warms and sea levels rise, that line is shifting, and mangroves are expanding northward into regions that had previously been too cold for them to survive. 

In response, the Reserve is spanning another important boundary: the one between researchers working to understand how climate change will impact these important habitats and the communities who depend on them for quality of life.

“Our city has extensive square mileage that interfaces with our coastal environment,” says Jessica Beach, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of St. Augustine. “The threat that changes in coastal environmental conditions presents to the longevity and resilience of our community is of concern.”

Both mangroves and marshes provide important benefits to St. Augustine and other local communities. They nurture commercial and recreational fisheries, store carbon, and protect people and infrastructure from waves and storms. Understanding how the transition from one habitat to another affects these benefits is key to making decisions to manage these resources in the future.

Led by scientists from Villanova University and aiming to support local decision makers, the Reserve collaborated to launch the Wetland Ecosystem Temperatures in a Florida Ecotone Experiencing Transition Project (WETFEET) in 2017, with funding from the National Science Foundation. The team has placed “warming chambers” that simulate predicted future temperatures and sea levels in the field to determine how mangrove and marsh habitats will fare in the future.

“Our initial findings suggest that mangroves may keep up with sea level rise more successfully than marshes, while continuing to provide storm surge protection and carbon storage,” observes Lia Sansom, Manager of the GTM Reserve. “The transition to mangroves could prove to be an advantage for Northeast Florida’s communities.”

A mangrove grows inside a warming chamber.

Knowing for sure relies on the kind of long-term collaborative research and monitoring Reserves were designed to provide. WETFEET, along with the Reserve’s marsh elevation monitoring data, has catalyzed two other projects. The first, Experimenting with Elevation, funded by the NERRS Science Collaborative, is helping land managers understand their options for maintaining or increasing wetland surface elevation in the most vulnerable habitats. The second, Preparing for Thin Layer Placement, funded by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, is exploring the viability of different management strategies for vulnerable habitats. The Reserve’s Coastal Training Program works to ensure that local decision makers have ample opportunities to learn about this research and how to apply the results.

“The Thin Layer Placement project and the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program opened up the opportunity for our community to participate in this issue,” says Beach. “At our most recent workshop and site visit, local stakeholders provided input as we explore possible applications for the reuse of dredged sediment strategically placed to combat the changes in our coastal systems that we are already seeing.”

When the study is complete, Beach says, St. Augustine may apply the results to other areas and/or projects.

“The work that our staff does to engage the community brings awareness to the importance of healthy coastal wetlands in mitigating the effects of sea level rise. Together we can protect these habitats by understanding how they adapt to change and supporting their resilience,” says Sansom.

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Reserves Benefit Local Economies

Reserves Benefit Local Economies

Through a partnership with Rising Tide Explorers, the Rookery Bay Reserve attracts more than 13,000 visitors who generate more than $1 million in revenues annually. Photo courtesy Rookery Bay Reserve.

National Estuarine Research Reserves are a positive influence on local economies, according to a 2020 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management (NOAA OCM) and the Eastern Research Group, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The team calculated the economic contributions of Reserves in Florida, Oregon, and New Hampshire in 2019 and 2020. They found that each Reserve makes positive economic contributions to local communities by supporting jobs and increasing local revenues.

Economic contribution is the economic activity that happens in a community as a result of spending related to a program or project,” explains Pete Wiley, NOAA economist and study co-author. “This study showed the spending that happens as a Reserve carries out its work has a ripple effect that touches many people and businesses. What makes a Reserve’s economic contribution particularly powerful is that it’s paired with activities that people love to do and places that they care about for many reasons.”

The study found that Reserves directly and indirectly support jobs in many industries— including tourism, construction, restaurant, real estate, fishing, retail—in the counties where they are located. For example, spending by visitors to Florida’s Rookery Bay Reserve supports approximately 104 jobs, not only in those businesses where visitors actually spend money, but also in others. The restaurant where a family buys lunch might depend on the local farmers cooperative for produce and engage employees who like to visit a nearby bowling alley after work. 

Through programs and partnerships, the study also showed that Reserves contribute to revenues that sustain the resilience of businesses and communities. For example, through investments in staff salaries, facilities maintenance, operations, and partnerships, Florida’s three Reserves increased local revenues by $45 million on average in 2019 and 2020.

Investments in Oregon’s South Slough Reserve staff salaries, facilities maintenance, operations, and partnerships enhanced local revenues by $5.3M in 2019. Photo courtesy, South Slough Reserve.

“Reserves make a significant contribution to their local economies, and these, coupled with the substantial benefits realized through their positive influence on the environment, result in an enormous value to their states and to the country,” says Wiley.

“This study verifies what we have always known—having a Reserve in your community makes significant contributions to the local economy,” says Rebecca Roth, executive director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association.

“Even beyond the studies that show the work that Reserves do to protect and manage their piece of the coast can make economic contributions, we know these places  provide many valuable benefits to natural resource-dependent industries, as well as communities and the public.”

For example, New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve partners to protect and restore the salt marshes, eelgrass meadows, and oyster beds that help make the waters of the Bay fishable, swimmable, and drinkable. Restoring these habitats could save up to $24 million in annual wastewater treatment costs and increase commercial fishermen revenues by $1.9 million each year.

New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve partners with Reserves around the country to develop tools to advance the resilience of salt marshes in the face of rising seas. Photos courtesy of the Great Bay Reserve.

Bringing built & natural shorelines together at GTM

Bringing built & natural shorelines together at GTM

Gabion-break design protects marshes and encourages oyster reefs. Photos courtesy GTM Research Reserve.

Wetlands and other natural places along shore can minimize erosion, anchor habitat, and provide stability even in the face of fierce hurricanes. But in Northeast Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, they can be overwhelmed by storm driven waves and large boat wakes. Research at Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve is bringing living and built structures together to stabilize the shore and help protect and sustain economically important habitats. 

 At six sites in the Research Reserve, the University of Florida-led team combined two lines of defence—porous wooden breakwalls and oyster catching structures—to reduce erosion at the edge of sensitive marshes and encourage oyster reef development. Known as a gabion-break, this design dissipated damaging, high-energy waves by 30 to 90 percent. The research also helped put boat wakes into perspective.

“One of the most significant results was increased awareness of just how damaging boat traffic can be on natural and built infrastructure,” says Nikki Dix, research coordinator at the GTM Reserve. “If we are going to invest in restoring important habitats like wetlands and oyster reefs, this research shows we need to protect them from boat wake so they can succeed.”

The design, previously used with success in the Netherlands, was tested and improved for application in Florida.  Research reserve staff helped to design the demonstration, build partnerships, support field work, supply technical assistance and data, and assist with written materials, workshops, and public events. The team also created an instructional video and manual to help others follow the process. Together with more than 130 volunteers, they logged more than 640 hours of project support.

“Reserves bring a lot of things needed for this type of research to the table: conservation land, monitoring data, manpower, and outreach,” says Dix. “Through monitoring, we were able to compare oyster reefs on the breakwalls to natural reefs and see how they did—and they did really well! That natural baseline data helps us understand how well oyster restoration works, and how it could be applicable to other habitats like wetlands, and far beyond the bounds of the Reserve itself.”

The GTM pilot has inspired similar installations in nearby estuaries. The design has been replicated at North Peninsula State Park by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and St. Johns River Water Management District. The commission funded monitoring at both the pilot site and the state park, which allowed comparisons of gabion-break performance in areas of different tidal and boat traffic regimes. In the future, other Reserve teams may test similar breakwalls to protect marshes restored through the thin-layer placement of sediment—an emerging technique to elevate the marsh in the face of sea level rise (SLR).

This project was supported by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative, a nationally competitive science and knowledge transfer funding program that advances collaborative research to address coastal management problems important to Reserves and their communities. The Science Collaborative is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the University of Michigan Water Center.

Learning Guana Cultural History

Learning Guana Cultural History

A salt marsh in Florida’s GTM Reservea place rich in cultural as well as ecological history. Photo and story courtesy of Ellen Leroy-Reed, director of the Friends of the GTM Reserve, originally published in the Fall 2020 edition of the Estuary Examiner.

Looking out onto the peninsula, I see figures carrying baskets brimming with indigo cuttings. Small silhouettes bend to gather clippings, while taller ones heft bulky loads above them. I spot the disparate shape of structures amongst the verdure and inhale the tang of caustic dyes steeping within them. I hear both the soft murmurs and discordant shouts from distant voices, but cannot make out the words. Do I hear a song, or is it the tonal clippings of a spoken language I do not understand?

I am looking out at the Guana peninsula in the year 2020, but I am seeing it as it was in the year 1773. I am looking out at Grant’s Plantation and seeing its truth.

For nearly five years, I have worked as the executive director of the Friends of the GTM Reserve. Less than a handful of yards from my office window is the Guana Dam, location of the Florida Historical Marker for Governor Grant’s Plantation. It reads, in part:

“In 1768, James Grant (1720–1806) Governor of British East Florida from 1763–1773, established Grant’s Villa Plantation at the juncture of the Guana and North rivers. Enslaved Africans cleared the 1,450-acre tract of land, planted indigo seeds, and processed the plants into blue indigo dye.”

Until recently, my kinship to this story has been by way of a loose connection through my Caucasian heritage. My ancestors come to America by way of Ireland, Scotland, England, and assorted countries—just like so many of the U.S. population. It was in August of this year that the sign became a catalyst for me, and it had nothing to do with Governor Grant, Europe, or even indigo.

During the summer of 2020, I watched as issues of inequality were exposed in real-time. I sensed fear, frustration, and exhaustion among those close to me who had suffered under its oppressive weight. This unrest prompted difficult conversations as I learned about disparities I never knew existed. Even after spending the last two years working on the GTM for All initiative, I realized I had more to learn about inequality and more to do.

GTM for All is special to me. Helping to weave accessibility and inclusivity into the fabric of the Reserve has been one of my proudest accomplishments. Diversity of thought and diversity of perspective makes for a better outcome, and I believe with all my being that diversity of people is what makes for a better world. 

But for all the good work that has been done to create an inclusive space at the Reserve, had we done enough to cultivate a welcoming environment for underrepresented populations? According to a National Park Service survey in 2014, out of the 292.8 million visitors to its parks, only 22% identified as minorities. Our anecdotal knowledge of GTM visitation demographics would likely align with their figures.

We had work to do. If we wanted to forge a connection between the Reserve and underrepresented populations of visitors, we had to learn how to interpret GTM’s unique culture and history… which brings me back to Grant’s sign. What of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the Guana peninsula? What can we learn from history’s complexity? How can we connect through knowledge and understanding?

I pored through books, manuscripts, and photos, stopping on occasion to share some factoid I had discovered, usually with the frenzied zeal of a child retelling a story to a parent. There were letters with the names of men, women, and children who were brought to the peninsula by way of South Carolina and before that, the Transatlantic slave trade. Among them were members of the Gullah Geechee people, descended from West Africans. They brought with them expertise in rice and indigo farming, along with a rich heritage of art, language, cuisine, and expression. Looking at photos, I saw the faces of strong people who endured brutal conditions while creating a culture built on faith, family, and hope.

This is how I came to love the history of Guana, and how I came to view the landscape around me with a new perspective. I may not be able to see myself in the Gullah Geechee people, but I honor them. I see the richness in their arts and expression and honor their contributions and sacrifice. I see the complexity of prejudice in our past and honor the hope of equity for all in our future.


Every Reserve is special. And everyone has a Reserve story to share. Why do you care about your Reserve? How has it made a difference in your life? Have a few minutes today? We want to hear your story.


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The Gullah-Geechee People and Folk Tales

The Gullah-Geechee People and Folk Tales

Photo and story courtesy Josephine Spearman, education coordinator at Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve. Originally published in The Estuary Examiner by the Friends of the GTM Reserve.

The Guana Peninsula is home to historical and cultural sites that tell the story of the land and its people. The most recent discovery is that the Gullah Geechee people were enslaved on the peninsula on Governor James Grant’s plantations. This connects the Guana Peninsula to the Gullah Geechee Corridor, which extends from Wilmington, North Carolina, south to St. John’s County, Florida.

Learning about the Gullah Geechee culture is a personal journey for me because it is part of my heritage. I grew up hearing my grandmother speak and tell stories in the language. She taught me about ethnobotany and natural medicine and shared her childhood experiences of living in a Gullah community. As an adult, I have finally begun to make connections from childhood memories to the rich Gullah Geechee culture. 

The Gullah Geechee people are descended from mainly West African tribes. They were brought to the southeastern United States to farm rice, indigo, and other crops. The terms “Gullah” and “Geechee” are used interchangeably and refer to their original ancestry in Africa. “Gullah” is said to be derived from “Gora ” or “Gola,” which were tribes living in Sierra Leone. “Geechee” is said to be derived from “Kissi” (pronounced Geezee), referring to a tribe living between Guinea and Liberia. The Gullah Geechee culture arose from close contact between many ethnic groups (West African, European, and Native American). The resulting unique language can be described as creole (a dialect from two or more languages). There is also a rich heritage of art, religion, music, and food. 

The Old Plantation. Artist: John Rose. Possibly between 1785-1795.

Gullah Geechee Storytelling 

Storytelling is a tradition among the Gullah Geechee people. Many stories (or folktales) have animals with human personalities as protagonists and center around a moral principle or learning experience. We know rabbits do not keep gardens or get advice from other animals. It helps make the characters more relatable and communicates the theme.

I would like to honor the tradition of storytelling with a folktale of my own, featuring animals and themes from the Guana Peninsula. This story focuses on the destructiveness of invasive species (such as feral hogs), the benefits of native plants, and the need for balance within ecosystems

Gullah Geechee Words

Gullah Geechee words often sound like the word they translate to in English, even if they are not spelled the same way. Some words are similar to Germanic Languages in that the sounds of v’s and w’s are switched.

  • Ain cyear – I don’t care, don’t care
  • Cyan’ – can’t
  • Don’gi – Don’t give
  • Ent wut – isn’t worth/ain’t worth
  • Gaya’d’n – Garden
  • Wine – going to, going
  • Hunnuh – you
  • In de ‘good – in the woods (forest)
  • Leebe – leave
  • Nyam – eat, eats, eating, ate
  • Tep – step
  • Wods – words

A Folktale: Rabbit and Wil’ Hog

Down in the forest by the ocean, all the animals lived in a big community. It was like a big family, where most animals worked together to make a good place to live.

Mouse had a very big family. They made sure there was the right amount of plants in the community; not too few and not too many. Too many plants would be a bad thing, tangling animals and stopping them from reaching their food. Too few plants were bad also because many animals would starve. Mouse’s family was very good at taking care of the extra plants by eating them. In fact, sometimes they were too good at it. That was where Indigo Snake stepped in.

Indigo’s job was to chase Mouse and her family away when they ate too many plants. Indigo helped to keep things balanced.

Rabbit had a big family as well. She was very skilled in growing things and had a lovely garden. She would toil and plant, and water, and fertilize, so that her beautiful garden could feed many of the animals.

Gopher Tortoise, slow as he was, was a good builder. In fact, he built the biggest and best burrows in the forest. Everybody wanted to stay, and it was safe! Not even the wildfires could touch the animals when they went down into Gopher Tortoise’s burrows. 

Most of the animals worked together in harmony — except Wil’ Hog. He didn’t work well with anyone. Wil’ Hog did not like to work, he did not like to share, and he took whatever he pleased. In fact, every year, while Rabbit tended to her garden (which everybody loved because she grew the best vegetables and liked to share), Wil’ Hog stomped through and ate everything in sight. He never asked permission and usually left a nasty muddy mess.

One day, Rabbit was ready to harvest her best vegetables yet. She came with her basket in hand, only to find Wil’ Hog had marched into her garden again. This time he had rooted up every single vegetable. He had eaten the melons, the okra, the yams, and the turnips. Wil’ Hog ate everything! All that was left of Rabbit’s garden was a muddy wallow.

“Wil’ Hog!” she squeaked indignantly, “Hunnah tek wuh b’long to me and eb’rybody! All my gaya’d’n is gwine, hunnuh t’ief!” 

Rabbit’s whiskers twitched this way and that. She was very very mad! She had a big family to feed and Wil’ Hog had eaten everything she, her children, and all the other animals were going to need for the rest of the season.

Wil’ Hog looked up with a mouth full of her vegetables. “Ain cyear.”

Rabbit bristled. “We wu’k hard for we’self, and hunnuh fuhr’ebbuh tek’way an don’gi!” They all worked hard and selfish Hog just took and took and never gave back.

He swallowed the last of her turnips and looked past Rabbit for more. “Ain cyear.” Clearly Wil’ Hog, an animal of very few words, didn’t care. 

Rabbit furiously hopped away to get advice from Gopher Tortoise who was digging another burrow. “Gopher, mek Wil’ Hog leebe. He tek eb’ ry ’t’ing. My gaya ’d’ n ent wut’ nutt’ n ’ fo nobody in de wood.” She was still angry, but now she was sad too. Rabbit worked so very hard to make a garden that could feed all the animals and now it was worthless, because Hog ate it all.

Gopher Tortoise stilled, “Well, Will Hog wey tummuch bigguh den me. ‘E gwine tep on my shell an bruk’ em. Puhaps hunnuh moobe hunnuh gaya ’d’ n way an change de wegitubbles, den Wil’ Hog cyan ‘ ketch.” It wasn ‘t that Gopher Tortoise didn ‘t want to help, Wil’ Hog was just too big and could break his shell. He couldn ‘t fight, but maybe Gopher Tortoise could help Rabbit with advice instead. He slowly turned his head and paused again. “Puhaps Indigo Snake got wods tu.”

Rabbit thanked Gopher Tortoise and hopped away. She felt a little better. She could move her garden and change the vegetables she planted there. Maybe then Wil’ Hog wouldn’t want to eat them. She was feeling much more thoughtful than before. Getting mad or sad for too long would not help but thinking would. Even so, Indigo might have some advice too.

Rabbit found Indigo Snake sunning herself on a rock. “Indigo, Hog dun nyam eb’ ry ’t’ing. Wuh gwine do fuh muh chirren? Cyan ’ hunnuh mek Hog leebe, luk hunnuh do w ’ enebbuh Mouse nyam tummuch?” Rabbit explained again. Wasn’t there anything Indigo could do? What if she chased Hog away like when Mouse ate too much?

Indigo looked thoughtful. “Hmm, “Wil’ Hog tummuch bigguh den me. He gwine tep on my head and bruk’ em. Puhaps hunnuh mek bigguh gaya ’d’ n.” Wil’ Hog was too big and dangerous for Indigo also, but maybe, Rabbit could plant more than Hog could eat; then there would still be enough for everyone. Rabbit thanked Indigo Snake and hopped away to start replanting. She would use both Gopher Tortoise’s and Indigo Snake’s advice.

Rabbit began planting different seeds from those in her old garden. No more yams, turnips, melons, or okra. She planted things Wil’ Hog wouldn’t notice as much like wild grapes, hickory nuts, wild greens, blackberries, and wild plums. She planted anywhere and everywhere seeds would grow. She was going to make the biggest garden she could. In fact, Rabbit made the entire forest into a garden. Rabbit couldn’t fight Wil’ Hog face to face, but she used other ways to beat him. To this day, Wil’ Hog is destructive, selfish, and “ain cyear,” however, Rabbit and the other animals now have many more places where they can find food.


Every Reserve is special. And everyone has a Reserve story to share. Why do you care about your Reserve? How has it made a difference in your life? Have a few minutes today? We want to hear your story.


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ReservesGuana Tolomato Matanzas, Florida