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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Reserve Data Tracks Climate Change Threats

Reserve Data Tracks Climate Change Threats

A water quality monitoring station in one of the estuaries monitored by the North Carolina Reserve. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Reserve.

In October 2018, Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas, causing $24 billion in damages and killing more than 50 people. But the dangers of the storm extended beyond the immediate wind, rain, and debris. Using data from the North Carolina Reserve, investigators tracked a tripling in infections of the deadly pathogen Vibrio vulnificus in the hurricane’s wake.

Data from the Reserve’s System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) showed that Florence’s heavy rains shifted the salinity of coastal waters into the ideal range for Vibrio, likely contributing to the spike in infection rate. Three North Carolinians died after exposure to Vibrio in the days following the storm. 

This graph shows the salinity ranges from a Reserve monitoring station near where Ron Phelps, a North Carolina man who died of Vibrio infection, was likely exposed in the days following Hurricane Florence. Credit: Elisabeth Gawthorp.

As oceans warm and storms grow harsher and more frequent, Vibrio infections are becoming increasingly common, even in areas they have never occurred before. In this article, Glenn Morris, an emerging pathogens expert at the University of Florida, calls Vibrio “an early warning system” for the kind of public-health crises that will keep arising from climate change.

Vibrio infections are quite climate sensitive,” said Morris. “Even a slight rise in temperatures can significantly boost their growth.”

Scientists call Vibriooften characterized as a “flesh-eating bacteria”a bellwether for climate change because it flourishes in warm brackish waters. V. vulnificus, the most deadly strain, kills one in every five people who contract it. Since 2007, South Carolina has seen a three-fold increase in Vibrio infections and North Carolina’s rate is 1.6 times greater. 

The North Carolina Reserve has been collecting standardized water quality and climate data on the coast since 2002. “The investigators approached us because we had some of the best data in the area,” said Byron Toothman, a monitoring technician at the Reserve. “The value of our data is that it stretches across many geographic regions, and it’s consistent in the way it is collected, processed, and handled.”

To assess public health risks driven by the impacts of climate change, high-quality, long-term environmental data is essential.The Reserve’s data not only supports science and research, but also natural resource management. The University of North Carolina Wilmington, for example, depends heavily on Reserve expertise for the management of their shellfish research hatchery life support system.

A sediment elevation table (SET) tracks the elevation of a marsh in the face of climate change-driven sea level rise.

The Reserve’s science and monitoring is complemented by a robust Coastal Training Program that provides tools, training, education, and support for local communities. Since Hurricane Florence, they have provided training on climate resilience for almost 400 local professionals, including real estate agents, marine contractors, engineers, and land managers. 

“The North Carolina Reserve seeks and values partnerships with organizations and communities in our local watersheds,” says Whitney Jenkins, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator. “By providing resources and training opportunities to improve coastal resilience to climate change impacts, we further the NCNERR’s mission while also meeting local needs.”


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Living Shorelines Are Hurricane Strong in North Carolina

Living Shorelines Are Hurricane Strong in North Carolina

Monitoring a living shoreline after a storm. Photos courtesy of the North Carolina Reserve.

At our North Carolina Reserve, the results are in—shorelines that incorporate natural landscape features can be an effective way to stabilize coastal areas as storms become more severe and frequent around the country.

Working with their state partner, the North Carolina Division  of Coastal Management, Reserve scientists are monitoring the effectiveness and durability of rock and oyster sills at eight sites spread over more than 200 miles of the state’s coastline. Marsh sills are a form of living shoreline that uses oyster shell or rock to protect existing or newly planted marsh vegetation. They run parallel to the shore, reducing the wave energy hitting the marsh. In turn, the marsh also reduces wave energy and erosion further upland.

Living shorelines built with oyster shells stabilize the shoreline and provide critical habitat.

For this project, the team visited each site before and after Hurricane Florence in 2018. Their data showed minimal signs of erosion, marsh vegetation loss, or damage to the sill.

“The results have been remarkable,” says Brandon Puckett, the Reserve’s research coordinator. “Monitoring pre- and post-Hurricane Florence demonstrated that all of these living shorelines are extremely resilient. The land behind the sills experienced minimal erosion—less than a foot —despite the strength of the storm.”

At the St. James Plantation retirement community in Southport, there’s no doubt that their living shoreline is creating value. For locals, their 505-foot sill is not just bags of rocks and oysters, it is also something that brings the community together. Each year, a group of more than 30 high school students come out to expand and repair the sill as needed, while learning about the science behind it and the benefits it offers. 

High school students from the University of North Carolina Wilmington Oceans 17 youth program install marsh grass on the living shoreline with retirees from the local community.

“Our living shoreline is a multigenerational program,” says Taylor Ryan, the St. James resident who spearheaded the installation of the shoreline in 2007. “It’s great for us to have the young people come in and help– and they love helping on a project that they can see real results from. And the community members bring their grandkids too, and get them involved.”

The project team is using their data to advise property owners, contractors, regulatory partners, and others engaged in shoreline management. For example, research results are being incorporated into Promoting Living Shorelines for Erosion Control workshops organized by the Reserve’s Coastal Training Program. The team also shared their findings  with the Coastal Resources Commission, which establishes policies for North Carolina’s Coastal Management Program, including those related to dredging and filling along the coasts.

Puckett says, “The data on the favorable performance of these sills can be used to demonstrate their benefits, durability, and potential cost-effectiveness to someone looking to install a new living shoreline. We’ll continue to monitor these sites for the next three to five years to see how quickly these shorelines recover from the minimal damage incurred from the storm.”

House Hunting for Oysters

House Hunting for Oysters

Scientists Brandon Puckett of the North Carolina Reserve (left) and Ray Mroch from National Marine Fisheries collecting field data used to develop a new modeling tool for siting oyster restoration projects. Photo courtesy North Carolina Reserve.

Any homeowner can tell you that finding a home in today’s markets can be a long, bumpy road. Turns out it’s just as tough for oysters or the restoration teams working to bring these threatened shellfish back to coastal waters. Their jobs just got a little easier, however, thanks to a new online tool designed to identify the best sites for oyster reef restoration. Developed by our North Carolina Reserve and a team of local scientists and stakeholders, the model is accessible online to oyster restoration teams across the country.

Oysters provide many valuable services—they filter water, reduce erosion, provide fishery habitat, and support an aquaculture industry valued at nearly $200 million annually. Unfortunately, in many places overfishing, disease, and other challenges have reduced local oyster populations to 10 to 15 percent of historic numbers. While restoration efforts often focus on the sites of oyster reefs that have been lost or reduced, these may no longer be appropriate due to changing conditions.


A restored oyster reef. Healthy oysters support healthy estuaries, yet in many systems, oyster populations have been reduced to a fraction of their historic numbers. Photo courtesy of North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries.

The new oyster habitat model takes a comprehensive approach to help restoration teams identify locations that might be feasible today. It generates an interactive map that visualizes optimal oyster habitat based on 17 different parameters, including oyster larval dispersion. The research team recently shared their results through a paper in Frontiers in Marine Science.

“For sanctuaries, this siting tool is our first step in planning any major project, and has been formally incorporated into our protocol for new site selection,” says Jason Peters, Enhancement Program Supervisor for North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries.  “The beauty is that it’s customizable and the resulting map clearly emphasizes focal areas for reef enhancement. It’s an easy-to-read, one stop shop for information. We use it as a springboard for site investigations and ultimately management decisions.” 

The model is already being used to select oyster restoration sites in North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound.

“As the second largest estuary in the United States, Pamlico Sound is quite vast and identifying areas for restoration can be rather daunting.” said Erin Fleckenstein, coastal scientist with the North Carolina Coastal Federation. “This tool has been particularly helpful in selecting areas for consideration and communicating the reasons why they are priority locations.”

Machinery deploys artificial reef material for a restoration effort at a site selected in part using the new oyster habitat model. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Black Skimmers Inspire

Black Skimmers Inspire

 Photo courtesy Miriam Sutton.

With the dusk a strange bird came to the island from its nesting grounds on the outer banks. Its wings were pure black, and from tip to tip their spread was more than the length of a man’s arm. It flew steadily and without haste across the sound, its progress as measured and as meaningful as that of the shadows which little by little were dulling the bright water path. The bird was called Rynchops, the black skimmer.

—Rachel Carson, Under the Sea Wind

When she was writing her first book, Rachel Carson was not the first to be inspired by the iconic dance of black skimmers at our North Carolina Reserve, and she won’t be the last.

“Jet black above and white below,” the elegant skimmer comes to dinner dressed in its own tuxedo—and with a built in spoon. Skimmers are the only bird to have an underbite; their lower mandible is longer then the top. Day and night, they move with military-grade precision over the water’s surface, the long lower mandible plows through the water until it contacts a fish and the bill snaps shut.

For the staff at our North Carolina Reserve, the sight of feeding black skimmers means healthy estuaries, teaming with the juvenile fish that these birds need to survive and support the culture and economies of surrounding coastal communities.

Thank you, black skimmers! Your presence in North Carolina inspired Rachel Carson nearly 80 years ago and it inspires us today.

Have you had an encounter with a black skimmer or another critter at one of our Reserves? We’d love to hear about it! Share your Reserve story. 

Eye in the Sky Helps Coastal Clean Up

Eye in the Sky Helps Coastal Clean Up

Our North Carolina Reserve and partners are using drones to locate marine debris for clean up. Photo courtesy of Duke University.
Like many coastal areas, our North Carolina Reserve collects marine debris from boaters, businesses, residences, and improperly secured vessels and fishing gear. Larger items are easier t0 spot, but in remote areas, debris can go undetected for months or even years. 

What site manager Paula Gillikin needed was a tool to survey the entire area with minimal disturbance to sensitive habitats. Turns out researchers at the next door the Duke University Marine Lab had a solution.

With funding from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, the Reserve and Duke researchers set out to use drones to map larger marine debris across the Reserve’s Rachel Carson site.

They captured high-resolution imagery of the entire Rachel Carson Reserve using drones. “We were able to clearly show that aerial drones can be a cost-effective way of scanning broad areas of coastal ecosystems for medium- to large-scale marine debris in a relatively small time,” explains Everette Newton, a Duke doctoral student and mayor of nearby Beaufort.

“Once we identified debris, the next step was to prioritize which debris to remove, based on costs and the relative potential habitat benefits,” Gillikin says.

Removing debris was no small task. Waterlogged pilings and dock sections are incredibly heavy and required help from partners to remove. The Reserve team worked with Tow Boat U.S. – Atlantic Coast Marine Group, the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort and the Town of Beaufort to collect and dispose of the debris. They also recruited many hands from the community to help clean up the reserve.=

Over the two years of the project, 255 volunteers helped to remove more than 13,500 pounds of marine debris. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve.
Volunteers found the debris identified from the aerial imagery, worked together to carefully remove it, collected basic data on the size and makeup of the debris, and handed it off for disposal on the mainland. Most of the large debris consisted of pilings, dock sections and lumber. The vast majority of smaller debris was, no surprise, plastic.

Because marine debris items often have lasting effects on the sensitive habitats where they land, the team monitored damaged areas for habitat recovery.

“We followed six areas where the habitat had been damaged by large debris items in the marsh and dunes,” Gillikin explains. “After one year, the diversity of plants increased by more than 90 percent and vegetation cover increased by more than 900 percent.”

To boost habitat recovery in other areas — and to offer hands-on learning opportunities — the Reserve team called upon its Seeds to Shoreline Program, where schools raise native Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass plants, to use in restoration efforts. The Beaufort Elementary School raised 50 seedlings to plant in an area where a piece of plywood had smothered the marsh grass. 

Within three months, the Spartina planted by students was growing well and had filled in the damaged area. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve.

Newton sees the need for marine debris surveys in ongoing coastal management. “These efforts are a major step forward in assessing the magnitude of marine debris for municipalities so they can implement measures to reduce this risk to human health and coastal ecosystems,” he says.

This project, along with many others, has catalyzed a state-wide marine debris reduction plan. The N.C. Coastal Federation is leading the planning effort with help from the Reserve program, North Carolina Sea Grant and the N.C. Marine Debris Symposium.

Gillikin is excited about this initiative. “We are working to assess and capitalize on existing research and resources, identify needs, and come up with do-able strategies to beautify and protect our state’s coastline. As a Research Reserve, Rachel Carson is a perfect place to test this new method.”

Interested in helping track marine debris? Download the Marine Debris Tracker app created by the NOAA Marine Debris Program & Southeast Marine Debris Initiative, or load the CleanSwell app created by the Ocean Conservancy on your smartphone, or read  the “How It Works” guide.


Students from the Tiller School in Beaufort help estuarine habitats by removing marine debris from the Rachel Carson Reserve. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve.

Thanks to Michelle Brodeur, communications specialist with the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve, for this story.

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