Paper by UGA Skidaway Institute scientist featured in prominent journal

A research paper by University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Natalie Cohen was selected as the cover article in the February issue of the journal Nature Microbiology.

The paper, “Dinoflagellates alter their carbon and nutrient metabolic strategies across environmental gradients in the central Pacific Ocean,” was based on data a team of fellow researchers collected on a 2011 cruise in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Dinoflagellates are tiny plankton, many of which are capable of using photosynthesis in addition to eating small prey.

They play a fundamental role in the biogeochemical cycles in the ocean by transferring energy from lower to higher life forms and also transporting carbon vertically in the water column.

“Some dinoflagellates can travel vertically in the water column using their flagella,” said Cohen, the lead author of the paper. “Some are also capable of bioluminescence which can light up the sea surface at night.

“They are found throughout the world’s oceans and an important component of the ocean carbon cycle.”

When the scientists analyzed the data from the cruise, they discovered a greater abundance of dinoflagellates than they expected. Researchers found the dinoflagellates were abundant both in the sunlit surface ocean and also in deeper, darker waters. This relative abundance in two drastically different environments lead the researchers to conclude the dinoflagellates must change how they function as they move from one depth zone to the other.

Cohen conducted the research while she was a postdoctoral fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Along with Cohen, the other members of the research team include Matthew McIlvin, Dawn Moran, Noelle Held, Jaclyn Saunders, Mak Saito and Michael Brosnahan, all from Woods Hole; Nicholas Hawco from the University of Southern California; Giacomo R. DiTullio from the College of Charleston; Carl Lamborg from the University of California, Santa Cruz; and John McCrow, Chris Dupont, Andrew Allen, all from the J. Craig Venter Institute.

The entire paper can be viewed at the journal website.

Evening @ Skidaway lecture series returns in virtual format

After a lengthy hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography resumed its 2021 Evening @ Skidaway speaker series in February. The talk was the first of 11 Evening @ Skidaway programs to be presented through November.

The programs were initially presented via Zoom, but were subsequently moved to UGA Skidaway Institute’s YouTube channel and will begin at 7 p.m. Evenings @ Skidaway will continue to be presented virtually until it is possible to safely resume in-person gatherings.

Tuesday, April 13 – Dan Ohnemus, “A Look at Climate Mitigation Solutions: Ideas for the Century Ahead”

Tuesday, May 18 – Adam Greer, “The Secret Life of Ocean Critters”

Tuesday, June 8 – Clifton Buck, “Is it the Sun? Skepticism and Myth Making in Climate Science”

Tuesday, July 13 – Catherine Edwards, “Alexa, Map Fish Habitats! Artificial Intelligence for Robotic Fisheries Management”

Tuesday, August 10 – Open Lab Night, Labs TBA

Tuesday, September 14 – Clark Alexander, “I’m all shook up – Earthquakes and Tsunamis”

Tuesday, October 12 – Marc Frischer, “Climate Change and Shrimp Black Gill – Is There A Connection?”

Tuesday, November 9 – Jay Brandes, “The Ocean’s Plastic Problem – A Very 21st Century Pollutant”

For additional information, contact Michael Sullivan at (912) 598-2325.

Community science supports environmental research

You don’t have to be a professional scientist with an advanced degree to make a meaningful contribution to scientific research. That is one conclusion of a recent paper by Dorothea Sanders, an educator at the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Jay Brandes. The article was published in the winter issue of Current: The Journal of Marine Education.

The paper focuses the researchers use of “community scientists” in a project to study the extent of microplastic pollution on the Georgia coast. The community scientists are volunteers, without extensive training or graduate degrees in the field.

Volunteers Roger Cayer and Jim Orr rinse sieves used to collect microplastics.

The initiative began in 2018 when Brandes and Sanders were faced with the daunting task of collecting monthly water samples at 12 different sites along the Georgia coast, but without a large team to conduct the field work. The previous summer, a UGA undergraduate student, Jacob Mabrey, demonstrated that using community scientists to fill the gap might be the answer. Mabrey spent the summer travelling up and down the coast and collected dozens of samples.
Sanders and Brandes wanted to know whether community science could play a significant role in scientific research. They started with a model developed by the University of Florida microplastics project, Florida Microplastic Awareness Project.

“We took that model and adapted it to what we thought we needed here on the Georgia coast,” Sanders said.

Volunteers Maddie Monroe and Jim Orr collect water samples for microplastics.

Sanders and Brandes initially approached the Satilla, Altamaha and Ogeechee Riverkeeper groups, who conduct monthly water tests in their areas already. The riverkeeper groups gladly joined the project. Sanders and Brandes then expanded to include a small group of volunteers who were working with Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant on the Skidaway Island campus.

“It’s worked out great, because we have a group of volunteers that are very interested in learning more about this global issue,” Sanders said. “But more importantly, they’re interested in doing something about it. And so, this afforded an opportunity for volunteers to come in and not only help us do the science, but also become advocates for the project and advocates for what we were trying to accomplish.”

Roger Cayer is one community scientist volunteer. “I feel like studies like this are important to raise the awareness level of the general population about plastic pollution,” he said. “Who would have thought that synthetic clothing would become such a major problem?”

Brandes is very careful to avoid using the term “amateur” to describe the team of volunteers. “I think, sometimes, there can be a negative connotation to that word, but the people who have been working on this project have been wonderful and very dedicated.”

He said that everyone involved understands the critical importance of proper research technique, strict protocols and training in order to obtain believable data.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the field work for the past 12 months. As Brandes said, it is difficult to socially distance on a 24 foot Carolina skiff.

Sanders and Brandes would like to see their work benefit other researchers and community scientists. The overarching concept of the article is to provide a model that other researchers can put to work elsewhere.

“Take community science, and its advantages, and its bonuses and how people can be an integral, an important part of scientific research, because they are force multipliers,” Sanders said. “They allow us to do so much more on such a larger scale than we would be able to do on a day-to-day basis.”

Sanders said the community scientists opened her eyes to how the public is interested in environmental issues, especially issues that are in their own backyard. And they want to be advocates.

“So that’s been a rewarding aspect of this project, to not only get to know the volunteers or the community scientists on a personal level, but to realize their passion for the work is just as great as our passion,” she said.

That passion is echoed by Cayer who said he has enjoyed “the camaraderie, the laughs, the sharing of knowledge and ideas. And getting to know each member on a deeper level by sharing a common passion and goals.”

The entire paper can be found here.


New faculty scientist joins UGA Skidaway Institute

Molecular ecologist Natalie Cohen joined the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography faculty in December 2020

Cohen studies the molecular components within phytoplankton, especially their DNA, RNA and proteins.

“I’m also dabbling and trace metal geochemistry,” Cohen said. “And that makes Skidaway a really great place to be, because there are several other geochemists here, which is really nice for collaborations and coming up with new research directions.”

Although so tiny they are out of sight to a non-scientist, Cohen says the phytoplankton she studies are a vital part of the ocean.

“They carry out powerful reactions in the ocean, and they’re responsible for the transfer and movement of energy from the surface of the ocean to the ocean interior,” she said. “So, they play an essential role in our ocean biogeochemical cycles.”

Cohen received her B.S. in biology from Penn State and her Ph.D. in marine sciences from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She joins UGA Skidaway Institute from a post-doctoral fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Cohen is also an assistant professor in the UGA marine sciences department.

UGA Skidaway Institute drones monitor Tybee Island dunes

In recent years, some coastal communities have begun building man-made sand dunes as an alternative to hard structures like sea walls to protect their beaches from natural erosion and the effects of storm surges. Now researchers at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are studying the man-made dunes on one Georgia island to determine if man-made dunes really are the best answer to the beach erosion problem.

Tybee Island dunes

Every five to seven years for the past few decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has pumped thousands of tons of sand onto the beaches of Tybee Island to renourish the beaches that became reduced by natural erosion and the influence of the Savannah River ship channel. In the last renourishment, completed in early 2020, the Corps included some additional sand. The City of Tybee Island used the sand to form dunes to supplement the existing dune system. What is not known is whether this is a good long-term solution compared with other remedies like sea walls and rock revetments.

“We know sand dunes are protective, and that building dunes is better and cheaper than building seawalls,” UGA Skidaway Institute researcher Clark Alexander said. “The goal of our project is to determine how they function after you build them, and how they change so we can better manage them in the future.”

Alexander and his team are using drones and high-tech mapping technology to monitor the dunes to see how well the dunes effectively stand up to the forces of nature.

A drone in flight

“We want to monitor the dunes and let Tybee know how they are changing, where they are changing most rapidly and where they might want to concentrate future deposits of sand,” Alexander said.

It takes four to five days for the drone to survey all the Tybee beaches. During each flight, the drone will take thousands of overlapping pictures. The drone team begins by placing markers on the ground. They pinpoint the markers’ positions and elevations using a global positioning system that is accurate to within a couple of centimeters (less than an inch). Using these markers as known reference points, geographical information software analyzes the drone pictures and creates a three-dimensional model of the beach and dunes. By comparing the results of the surveys over time, Skidaway researchers monitor the changes in the dune system.

Volunteer Kate Burns “catches” a drone as it returns from a flight.

Like many barrier islands, Tybee’s beaches do not erode uniformly from one part of the island to another. This project will help the city to better predict what sections are going to need attention before others. Alexander points to the center of the island which has multiple rows of dunes and actually developed additional dunes naturally with each renourishment project. On the other hand, the north and south ends of the island are subject to a greater rate of erosion and some sections had no dunes at all until the man-made dunes were built there.

Research technician Claudia Venherm flies a drone while volunteer Cathy Lewis looks on.

The results of this project will be felt far beyond the shores of Tybee Island. Alexander and his team plan to produce a “best practices” manual that can be used by other coastal communities. “So that other communities, if they do decide to build dunes, they will have a starting point for how to monitor them,”
Alexander said. “This may be applicable to Jekyll Island that is trying to figure out how to protect their upland while their beaches are eroding. And St. Simons Island has sections of their island that are at risk.”

Alexander said beach renourishment was the first step to move away from hardening a shoreline, and describes dune building as a more environmentally friendly and sustainable solution.

“Dunes are a good solution instead of having a pile of rocks that may or may not protect you over the long term, and are really ugly, if you want to be frank,” he said. “Building dunes, creating habitat, helping to recreate the natural environment and let it function for us as it has in the past. I think this is the next step down that path using natural solutions to the problems we generate by our desire to live right at the coast.”

The project is anticipated to run for three years at $70,000/year with support from the City of Tybee Island, through a grant from Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs, and from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Alexander hopes to identify and obtain additional funding to allow the project to continue throughout the typical seven-year span between beach renourishments.

Georgia’s living shore: UGA addresses coastal resilience from many fronts

By David Terraso

The coast has long been a place where the future happens first. Millennia before James Oglethorpe landed at Yamacraw Bluff on the Savannah River to found the Georgia colony, Native Americans, such as the Mokoma, Timucua and the Guale, had already introduced their civilizations to the area.

But on the coast, nothing is permanent—not the populations, not the vegetation. Not even the land.

Today, instead of vast marshes and uninterrupted coastal plains, there are neighborhoods, highways, commercial tracts and beach developments. There are shrimp boats and fish trawlers. There’s a shipping industry that boasts both the Port of Savannah—the fastest growing in the nation for the past 10 years—and the Port of Brunswick, the second busiest in the country for shipping motor vehicles.

Coastal Georgia is an ever-changing landscape that ebbs and flows in response to both natural and human-made forces. Scientists and researchers from an array of disciplines at the University of Georgia are dedicated to understanding how to balance those systems so the people of the state and visitors can enjoy them for years to come. UGA’s activities in pursuing coastal resilience run the gamut from educating the public to uncovering the latest science to helping communities withstand the physical and economic effects of the intruding sea.

Losing ground?

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Clark Alexander

For the majority of Georgia’s population, the coast is a place to come and have fun temporarily, to visit the sites and do a little fishing, shopping and beach-combing, before they go back home. But the people who live there depend on the coast’s resilience.

“The coastal ecosystems and coastal jobs are critically important for the economy of the state. That’s everything from seafood production to ecotourism to port activities,” said Clark Alexander, director of UGA’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.

The state’s seafood industry employs nearly 10,000 people, to the tune of $1.4 billion in sales, while the recreational fishing industry supports more than 1,400 jobs with another $140 million in sales.

Because many of the species in these two industries spend at least part of their life cycles in the marsh, Alexander said, it’s vital for business that coastal ecosystems stay healthy.

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Mark Risse

“Georgia has some of the best and most protected coastal ecosystems on the eastern seaboard. It has 14 barrier islands, and most are in long-term conservation,” said Mark Risse, director of Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grantand Georgia Power Professor of Water Policy.

One of the biggest questions on the coast is how marshes will respond to the ongoing rise in sea level. Will they be able to withstand the ascending waterline, or will the Atlantic wash them away? According to photographic studies from the air, it looks like the marshes have been able to replenish themselves at the same rate the sea rises—so far. But models show the water’s pace is likely to increase.

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Sapelo Sea Farms employees sort and grade clams at the company’s dock in Townsend, Georgia. With support from Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, owner Charlie Phillips began farming clams to diversify his business after the commercial shrimping and fishing industry began to decline. (Photo by Peter Frey)

“When we look forward, it’s a little scarier because we see the pace of sea-level rise increasing, and it means the marsh has to keep up. It’s going to have to sort of run faster to stay in place,” explained Merryl Alber, director of the UGA Marine Institute on Sapelo Island.

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Merryl Alber, director of the UGA Marine Institute on Sapelo Island, is studying the impacts of sea-level rise that we can’t see. She and her colleagues are mapping what’s happening to coastal plant life underneath the soil. (Photo by Peter Frey)

Alber is working with research scientist Jessica O’Connell on a study mapping what’s going on under the soil in the marshes.

“There’s evidence that we might be losing ground that we’re not seeing when we look from above,” said Alber. “That could lead to the loss of that marsh, which would result in less carbon being stored by the plants.”

If plants aren’t able to store as much carbon, it will stay in the air where it could contribute to higher temperatures. What’s more, marshes are a nursery of nutrients for developing plant and animal life. Take away the marshes, and you wipe out a good portion of the base of the food web of the coast.

In the midst of mapping this loss, they’re trying to see if they can identify the most vulnerable spots and share it with the Department of Natural Resources to protect those areas.

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These drone images from the UGA Marine Institute show disturbances to sea wrack (seaweed) over time. Taken in three successive months in 2019, the photos show wrack disturbances in purple and provide information about the size, extent and amount of time that these disturbances last and what that means for the health of the salt marsh. (Image courtesy of UGA Marine Institute)

The resilience of a living shore

One way to help keep the coast resilient may be to convince developers to switch from using armored shorelines, made of steel, asphalt or concrete, to using natural materials like grasses, oyster shells, sand or rock in an array known as a “living shoreline.” Whereas armored shorelines simply keep the water at bay, sometimes just moving its destructive force down the coast, living shorelines can absorb the water.

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Brian Bledsoe’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems works with state and local permitting agencies to help communities progress toward infrastructure systems that operate more in harmony with natural systems and are more tolerant to environmental disruptions. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski)

“Living shorelines can adjust and regenerate after a hurricane or a major storm. It may look a little beat up, but it’s going to patch itself back together using solar energy,” said Brian Bledsoe, director of UGA’s Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems (IRIS).“How many bulkheads that get hammered do you see building themselves back up?”

These shorelines work by trapping sediment in the water, which promotes plant growth. They also can absorb much more of the incoming waves, with a small portion of marsh absorbing a large portion of the wave energy, explained Bledsoe.

The living shorelines also protect those species that are a critical part of the costal ecosystem. Studies show an increase in fish, crabs and shrimp at living shorelines built by Marine Extension on Tybee, Sapelo and Little St Simons islands. Bagged oyster shells and native vegetation provided the base, with natural oyster reefs forming above. In addition to erosion control, the oyster shells improved water quality by naturally filtering pollutants from runoff.

“Living shorelines in Georgia are doing the job they were designed to do and have remained intact after storm events and continue to stabilize the shoreline,” said Tom Bliss, director of the Shellfish Research Lab at Marine Extension. “Continued monitoring will allow us to determine their longevity.”

Bledsoe is working on teaching permitting agencies up and down the coast about the benefits of living shorelines, which can work in concert with armored shorelines for a hybrid approach, making the system stronger overall.

“If you go down to your permitting agency and you want to get a permit for a bulkhead, they have a standard process and can issue those relatively quickly. It’s something they’re familiar with,” said Bledsoe. “But if you want to build a living shoreline, they’re not as accustomed to handling that. It’s often outside their comfort zone.”

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Living shorelines, like this one at Cannon’s Point Preserve on St. Simons Island, use natural materials like oyster shells, sand or rock to absorb some of the water and wave energy unleashed during a tropical storm or hurricane. (Photo by Courtney Balling and Tommy Jordan)

IRIS and the Marine Extension collaborate with state and federal agencies, as well as private partners, to raise awareness of living shorelines as a prudent investment. IRIS has proposed a resiliency plan to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for the backside of Tybee Island, which would create living shorelines along with natural pathways to move floodwaters in a way that reduces damage to infrastructure.

It’s a critical time, according to Risse. As shore communities like Tybee and St. Mary’s experience flooding during high tides, there’s a real concern that people’s homes and retirement nest eggs will be drowned. With the region expected to double in population over the next 40 years, helping communities understand the ongoing risk while creating sustainable development is one of its biggest challenges.

Marine Extension for years has been working with coastal communities to join the Consumer Ratings System (CRS), a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that reduces flood insurance premiums—sometimes by as much as 80 percent—for property owners in cities and counties that take action to exceed minimum floodplain management standards.

Tybee Island put $1 million into drainage improvements and began requiring new property owners to build at least one foot above the base flood elevation. As of 2017, Tybee Island property owners had saved more than $3 million in insurance premiums.

The troubles with floods

In addition to flooding from the sea, overworked stormwater systems can inundate the streets as well. Because these systems are designed to drain to rivers or the ocean, high tide can bring an intrusion of saltwater. When it rains, the basins are already partially full, giving the streets nowhere to drain.

Crumbling septic systems are one potential risk, said Alexander. As sea level rises, the coastal water table is pushed up, reducing the amount of dry soil the system uses to filter the waste and making it easier for disease-bearing materials to potentially contaminate drinking water.

An inventory of septic systems in an 11-county region along the Georgia Coast was completed by the Marine Extension last year. Risse and Scott Pippin, a faculty member with UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, are now working with the individual counties to determine which systems may be at risk and adding them to a public database.

In partnership with IRIS, Pippin has funding from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration to use this septic inventory to assess present and future vulnerabilities in Bryan County, west of Savannah and home to the Fort Stewart Army Base. Bryan is also one of Georgia’s fastest-growing counties.

One way to create sustainable development is to use the marsh-front for parks and other public landscapes, so they are available for the entire community. This creates a more sustainable, living barrier than building housing right on the shore, said Jon Calabria, associate professor in the College of Environment and Design.

History is at stake as well. Calabria is working with the National Park Service, who, within a few years, will have to decide which historical seaside military forts it will try to save as the sea encroaches. “At some point, they may not be able to afford to maintain all of them just because the position they’re in is very vulnerable,” said Calabria. “If there’s an opportunity to redo some of the levees, that may buy them a few more years.”

Jill Gambill, coastal community resilience specialist at Marine Extension, helps communities and coastal residents plan for future incursions of the sea. Following Hurricane Matthew, Gambill led a series of focus groups in coastal communities to assess residents’ attitudes and behaviors related to evacuation. Using this information, Gambill produced materials to help better prepare coastal residents in the event of a storm, rolling out a YouTube video, social media and graphics to encourage residents to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

“One of the biggest take-homes is that storm surge is complex and there are lots of aspects to it,” Risse said. “We need to do a better job communicating what the risks are.”

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Nik Heynen in geography is working with the Gullah Geechee community of Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island to reintroduce crops like sugar cane on the island. The project would help Hog Hammock residents become more self-sufficient and provide a boost to the community’s economy. (Photo courtesy of Nik Heynen

Environmental justice for all

Taking practical steps is very much influenced by one’s economic means, explained Alber. “One thing people are starting to key into is understanding the differences in people’s ability to respond to the challenges,” she said. “If you have more money and live in a flooded area, you can probably move. But if you don’t have a lot of money, it may be challenging. So there are some environmental justice questions.”

The identity and economic class of a community can have a significant effect on how much help and access they get to these solutions, said Nik Heynen, professor in the Department of Geography.

As part of UGA’s Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture, co-directed by Heynen and Sapelo Island business leader Maurice Bailey, Heynen spends a lot of time working with the island’s Gullah Geechee community of Hog Hammock. These direct descendants of people brought over as slaves from West Africa possess a unique culture. The community was once as large as 500 people but has dwindled to around 40. It’s a relationship that took a lot of time and care to build, Heynen said.

“Stripping assumptions about what people in the community want, opening lines of communications between people who respect each other and are willing to be honest, even when it’s difficult, [goes a long way],” he said.

Heynen works alongside residents as they reintroduce several crops, like sugar cane, that were once grown on the island. Currently, with five plots of land, one as large as 25 acres, they’re working it on a shoestring, using a lot more manual than mechanized labor.

“If we can get a tractor, it’ll really be a game-changer,” said Heynen.

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The UGA Marine Education Center & Aquarium, located on Skidaway Island as part of the Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, holds summer camps for elementary, middle and high schoolers, as well as internships and adult education programs for older students, to help the public learn about the flora and fauna of coastal ecosystems, in hopes of inspiring people to preserve and protect them. (Photo by Peter Frey)

Teaching the future

In Savannah, UGA’s Marine Education Center and Aquarium, part of Marine Extension, hosts kids aged 6 to 15 during the Summer Marine Science Camp and provides educational field trips to student during the school year, where they learn from scientists about the coastal ecosystem, sea life and local habitats. The aquarium also conducts adult education programs. Its offerings are designed around the concept that educating and familiarizing the public with the ecosystem will inspire people to preserve and protect their environment.

In addition, Marine Extension hosts internship programs for students, teachers and the public in topics such as aquarium science, water quality, shellfish, coastal septics and socioeconomic issues. College students take part in courses where they learn about and prepare for careers in the marine sciences and coastal management.

To help teach residents about the dangers of staying in place during an evacuation order, Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, associate professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab, has created a virtual reality system that gives them a first-person experience of a hurricane.

“Virtual reality is particularly good at placing users in a situation that can be potentially fatal or even impossible in the physical world, in a way that’s very realistic to the senses,” said Ahn.

By experiencing a storm in a virtual world, Ahn is giving people a way to see just how dangerous a storm can be. Users can look in all directions and see the water entering a house and surrounding them with debris, mud and furniture, making it difficult for them to move, much less leave. At the end, the simulation shows what someone should do in such a situation.

“It’s a very visceral, frightening experience,” said Ahn.

The big picture

“One third of the salt marsh in the eastern United states is along our 100 mile coast and these marshes have a tremendous impact on the entire Atlantic ocean,” Risse said. “Key parts of our coastal food web including many fish and sea turtles originate in coastal Georgia and travel around the world.”

Add to that biodiversity, the cultural diversity of those who call the Georgia coast home, from the Gullah Geeche, the descendants of the European settlers, to the newcomers arriving from the four corners of the globe, and it’s clear that the coast is a lot more complex than previously understood. It takes patience, the ability to learn from what each other sees, and an openness to new ideas to fully comprehend how the natural world responds to the activities of humankind. One thing is sure: We’ll get a lot farther working the puzzle together than on our own.

That goes for scientists too.

“You have to learn your colleagues’ thought structures, their tools, models, how they view the world,” said Bledsoe. But it gives researchers a more holistic view of the region, so they can understand how everything works together. “It takes a lot of time, discussions and humility.”

New weather station goes online

UGA Skidaway Institute’s new weather station became operational in early May.

The weather station includes a 30-foot-tall tower on the pier at Priests Landing. It has a Gill Instruments GMX531 Weather Station, collecting wind direction and speed, air temperature, relative humidity, atmospheric pressure, solar radiation and precipitation at five minute intervals. The station is powered by a solar panel, and data is sent by a cellular link to a website for display. This installation is part of a National Weather Service-funded effort to improve regional weather forecasts.

The available current and historic data can be accessed HERE. Select “Skidaway 1,” which is the 14th station on the list.
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Connecting Georgia seafood producers to consumers during the coronavirus pandemic

by Emily Kenworthy

As farmers and food distributors struggle to get their products into the hands of consumers, UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant has teamed up with UGA Cooperative Extension and the Georgia Department of Agriculture to generate business for the seafood industry.

Clams are cleaned before being sorted by size.

Photo credit: Pete Frey

The Ag Products Connection, a partnership between UGA Extension and the state agriculture department’s Georgia Grown program, is designed to connect farmers and seafood producers with customers around the state looking to source local food products. Businesses can sign up to have their companies promoted through the online platform, which lists local businesses by county.

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Photo Credit: Peter Frey

“The resource was developed for producers who had a glut of product. Some were selling to school systems or restaurants, but now they don’t have those avenues of customers,” said Tori Stivers, seafood and marketing specialist for Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “With this program, they can market directly to consumers who can serve as new source of revenue for them.”

Stivers is working with fisheries specialists in UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to promote the resource to seafood professionals, many based on the coast, who are dealing with a surplus of product during the pandemic. She recently shared the resource with a list of more than 150 seafood wholesalers in Georgia, encouraging them to sign up.

“My hope is that it provides some income to those who have seen their business drop during this time so they can keep as many employees on the payroll as possible,” Stivers said. “If they can supplement their business by going directly to consumers, it might help them stay open.”

Some seafood businesses, like Southside Shellfish in Savannah, have already signed up for the program.

“We’ve seen a decline in clientele, but we’re still here and we’re still operating,” said Hope Meeks, owner of Southside Shellfish. “That’s why I think this resource will be so good because people keep calling and asking if we’re open, which we are.”

Meeks’ business has been involved in commercial crabbing since 1991. The retail business began in 2007, with the opening of a market in south Savannah. In addition to local blue crabs, they sell black sea bass, snapper, flounder and other seafood native to the east coast.

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Photo Credit: Peter Frey

“I’m hoping that this will bring in our regular customers as maybe new customers that don’t already know we’re here,” she said. “We have raw and cooked seafood, so for those who are skeptical about eating out, this is great way for people to source shellfish and fish products you can catch in our area.”

Georgia’s seafood producers and wholesalers who are keeping regular hours, providing curbside pickup, home delivery or e-commerce sales during the COVID-19 crisis can join the program by visiting the Georgia Grown Ag-Products Industry Promotion  or Georgia Grown E-Commerce Promotion pages and filling out forms that will add their information to the statewide database of producers that is being shared with consumers and buyers.

Consumers can find seafood resources listed by county HERE.

Georgia Grown — a state membership program designed to help agribusinesses thrive by bringing producers, processors, suppliers, distributors, retailers, agritourism and consumers together — is waiving all membership fees for the service until July to help producers affected by the crisis.

UGA Skidaway Institute’s Edwards granted tenure

The University of Georgia has granted tenure to UGA Skidaway Institute of Oceanography / Department of Marine Sciences scientist Catherine Edwards. Edwards was also promoted from assistant professor to associate professor, effective Aug. 1.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEdwards is a physical oceanographer, with broad interdisciplinary interests in marine sciences and engineering. She earned a B.S. in physics with highest honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and worked as an ocean modeler at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory before earning her Ph.D. in physical oceanography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She joined Skidaway Institute in 2010.

Edwards’ research focuses on answering fundamental questions in coastal oceanography and fisheries sciences with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Using AUVs, also called gliders, she and her team are developing novel ways to optimize their use with engineering principles and real-time data streams from models and observations.

While at UGA Skidaway Institute, Edwards has been awarded more than $2 million dollars on 12 projects totaling more than $12 million from NOAA/Navy sources, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and four different programs within the National Science Foundation. As the founder of a regional glider observatory, she serves as the lead scientist in a new project that places gliders in the paths of hurricanes to better predict their intensity at landfall. Edwards is a co-primary investigator in a large $5 million observational program studying exchange between the coastal and deep ocean at Cape Hatteras. In an effort funded by NSF’s Smart and Autonomous Systems program, Edwards is also working with researchers from Georgia Tech and Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary to utilize gliders and acoustic tagging to track fish migrations.

Scientific serendipity: Researchers make surprising finding on ocean’s ‘thin layers’

Sometimes scientists start out researching one subject, but along the way, they come across something else even more interesting. This is what happened to University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Adam Greer in the summer of 2016 when Greer was a post-doctoral associate at the University of Southern Mississippi. That fortuitous event resulted in a paper recently published in the journal Limnology and Oceanography with Greer as the lead author.

Adam Greer 1 650pGreer and his fellow researchers were on a cruise in the northern Gulf of Mexico to study the effects of river input on biological processes. They came across a natural phenomenon called a thin layer. These are oceanographic features found all over the world where biomass collects into a narrow portion of the water column–less than five meters thick vertically–and can extend for several kilometers horizontally. They tend to occur in stratified shelf systems.

“Surprisingly, there are few published studies on thin layers in the northern Gulf of Mexico, which is heavily influenced by rivers and highly stratified during the summer,” Greer said. “Thin layers are important because they are trophic hot spots, where life tends to congregate, and predators and prey interact.”

However, Greer said, thin layers are very difficult to analyze because they occur within a restricted portion of the water column, and most conventional ocean sampling equipment will not detect their influence on different organisms.

Greer and his colleagues were better equipped than most to study the thin layer. Rather than laying out a grid and taking a series of water samples, they were equipped with an In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS). This imaging system was towed behind their research vessel and undulated through the water column, producing a live feed of plankton images and oceanographic data. By studying the video, they were able to map the distributions of many different types of organisms in great detail. The thin layer was composed of large chains of phytoplankton called diatoms and gelatinous zooplankton called doliolids.

Thin Layer 2

A crewman launches the ISIIS.

“Although we expected many different organisms to aggregate within the layer, this was not the case,” Greer said. “The only organisms that were concentrated within the layer were gelatinous organisms called doliolids. Other organisms that we expected to see, such as copepods, chaetognaths and shrimp, tended to congregate near the surface just south of the thin layer.”

The researchers determined that the area south of the thin layer was influenced by a surface convergence – two water masses colliding and pushing water downward at a slow rate. They believe that many organisms with active swimming ability, such as shrimps and copepods, could stay within the surface convergence, while more passive swimmers, such as doliolids would follow the trajectory of the thin layer and diatoms.

Thin Layer 1

An image from the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System passing through the thin layer. The long, slender filaments are chains of diatoms. The larger, oval plankton are doliolids

Greer and his colleagues discovered several other characteristics of the thin layer they had not anticipated. There was a higher concentration of live phytoplankton than expected. As a result, the thin layer also had a high concentration of dissolved oxygen due to the photosynthetic activity. The zooplankton were also aggregated into distinct microhabitats with different oceanographic properties — such as temperature, salinity and light. The microhabitats also contained different types and abundances of food.

“For a lot of these organisms, if you took the average abundance of food it wouldn’t be enough to survive,” Greer said. “So whatever mechanisms there are to create higher abundances of food, they are potentially really important for a number of different organisms.”

The other members of the research team were Adam Boyette, Valerie Cruz, Kemal Cambazoglu, Luciano Chiaverano and Jerry Wiggert, all from the University of Southern Mississippi; Brian Dzwonkowski and Steven Dykstra, from the University of South Alabama; and Christian Briseño‐Avena and Bob Cowen, from Oregon State University.
The paper can be viewed HERE.