Area marine labs weather Isaias, continue research

Emory Wellman conducts field work at Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve prior to Tropical Storm Isaias’ arrival in North Carolina. (Emory Wellman photo)

Editor's note: This article was updated at 2:42 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, to correct a cutline.

MOREHEAD CITY — The marine laboratories in Carteret County have come through Tropical Storm Isaias without major damage, according to respective staff and faculty, and some took it as an opportunity for further research.

Tropical Storm Isaias blew through eastern North Carolina early last week, staying west of Carteret County. At the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, Director Rick Luettich said the lab didn’t receive any damage and researchers there made use of the opportunities for study the storm provided.

He said some IMS faculty and students have been studying how marshes dissipate wave energy before it hits the shoreline.

“I know that the people working on that study put out measuring instruments on Friday (July 31) hoping to capture the storm conditions in their data. I’m not sure how that turned out; it will be several weeks before they recover the instruments and look at their data.”

UNC-IMS student Emory Wellman is one of the students who was out at the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve prior to Isaias. Ms. Wellman said in an email she and her labmate went out Aug. 1 to the reef site they’ve been studying, taking with them a mapping unit.

“With this instrument, I can map both changes in horizontal position of the reef and marsh and also the vertical position, which can suggest deposition or loss of sediment,” Ms. Wellman said. “These reefs have now seen four major storms: (Hurricane) Florence, (Tropical Storm) Michael, (Hurricane) Dorian and Isaias. Interestingly, it was the other tropical storm, Michael, that seemed to have the most dramatic effects on the reefs.”

Ms. Wellman said pre- and post-storm data are critical to her master’s project on oyster reef restoration.

“In designing restoration efforts for threatened habitats like oyster reefs and salt marshes, we need to know whether the projects we undertake are resilient to storm events,” she said, “which will likely become more intense as the climate changes.”

UNC-IMS student Jana Haddad was also out in the field prior to Isaias’ arrival. She said in an email her project is observing, analyzing and modeling wave transformation across salt marshes and living shorelines.

“Although several studies have shown that living shorelines can significantly reduce erosion, there’s still limited understanding of the level of shoreline protection provided by salt marshes and living shorelines,” Ms. Haddad said. “We’re uniquely positioned in coastal North Carolina to study the interaction of waves and salt marsh vegetation, and the capacity of living shorelines to dissipate energy from wind, waves and boat wakes.”

Dr. Luettich himself has done considerable work on the effects of tropical weather. He developed a modeling system to forecast storm surge. Dr. Luettich said they ran approximately 150 storm surge forecasts for Isaias from July 30 through Aug. 4.

“Our initial assessment is that our forecasts were quite accurate, particularly as the storm track and strength became relatively well determined,” he said. “We predicted significant storm surge south of Cape Fear along the ocean side, in the Cape Fear river, in other coastal river estuaries along our coast and finally on the back side of the northern Outer Banks. The reports we have back indicate that there were all areas that experienced surge.”

At the N.C. State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, also in Morehead City, Director David Eggleston said the lab came through the storm without any damage.

“We lost power for six hours,” Dr. Eggleston said. “However, our emergency generator powered the freezers that store important samples.”

Isaias didn’t have any significant impact to the staff and faculty’s ongoing work, though it did create a minor scheduling problem, according to Dr. Eggleston.

“Other than losing sleep Monday night, most folks were able to resume their normal schedules the following day,” he said. “We were hoping to obtain some measurements of salt marshes and oyster reefs in the northern part of Pamlico Sound prior to any hurricanes. The storm precluded our ability to conduct those studies; however, the storm did add to our growing data on how hurricanes and tropical storms impact salt marsh shorelines and oyster reefs.”

Over on Pivers Island in Beaufort, there are two marine labs, the Duke University Marine Lab and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab. NOAA Lab Director Gregory Piniak said there wasn’t any substantive impacts to the lab itself or the staff’s activities. NOAA lab National Marine Fisheries Service Programs Director Dr. Aleta Hohn echoed Dr. Piniak’s statement.

“Our field activities are generally on hold,” Dr. Hohn said, “due to the (coronavirus) pandemic, so there have been no effects on NMFS projects due to the quick passing of Isaias.”

Duke Marine Lab Director Andrew Read said he was “happy to report that the marine lab didn’t sustain any damage” from Isaias.

“We were closed from Monday at noon until Tuesday morning at 9 a.m.,” Dr. Read said. “As a precaution, we pull our boats (including the Shearwater) out of the water and secured the lab. Other than that, we didn’t experience any disruption to our normal activities.”  


Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.

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