Tag Archives: university of georgia

Skidaway Institute of Oceanography: 50 years of marine research and education

The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography was born in 1968, but the story of the institute began several years earlier with a dream of some local and state leaders to give Georgia a foothold in the burgeoning field of oceanography. In 1964, the Georgia General Assembly formed the Georgia Science Technology Commission with an Oceanographic Task Force. Two years later this task force proposed that an oceanographic research laboratory be established on the coast. That same year, the U.S. Environmental Science Services Agency decided to establish an east coast facility. State and local leaders wanted to attract the federal facility to Georgia. To that end, in 1967 the General Assembly created the Ocean Sciences Center of the Atlantic Commission (O.S.C.A).

During this same time period, two property owners on the island offered to donate land to provide a home for the facility. Robert and Dorothy Roebling, and their family had lived on the island since the mid-1930s and operated a cattle breeding facility they called Modena Plantation.

Dorothy and Robert Roebling in 1967

Skidaway Institute’s current main campus is on the former Modena Plantation. Much of the remainder of the island was owned by the Union Camp corporation, which had previously used the property to grow pine trees for wood pulp to supply their paper plant in Garden City. Union Camp donated several hundred acres, which now includes Skidaway Institute’s Priests Landing dock on the Wilmington River. Union Camp also donated the land to accommodate Skidaway Island State Park.

In the end, Georgia did not win the prize for the federal facility. It was eventually established in Miami, Fla., but the idea of an oceanographic research institution on Skidaway Island was carried forward. Skidaway Institute of Oceanography was established as part of O.S.C.A. in 1968. In 1972, Governor Jimmy Carter dissolved O.S.C.A. Skidaway Institute was then assigned to the Board of Regents as an autonomous unit of the University System of Georgia (USG.)

Skidaway Institute officially opened on July 1, 1968. The former dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, Thomas Jackson, was the first director. He hired Herb Windom as the first faculty scientist. Windom had just completed his Ph.D. at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego. Soon others followed, including Howard Yen, who was finishing up a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, and Jim Andrews, who was completing his doctoral work in animal nutrition from UGA.

Lee Knight, Thomas Jackson and Jim Andrews walk near the under-construction Roebling Laboratory and Administrative Building.

The early support staff was very small. Jackson brought Lee Knight with him from Georgia Tech to be assistant director. Richard Buchner handled the business office, and Bonnie Zeigler was hired as a bookkeeper and secretary.

In those first days, Skidaway Institute relied heavily on the infrastructure inherited from the Roeblings, including a sophisticated firefighting system, farm buildings and dwellings, and a machine shop with equipment still in use 50 years later.

The Roebling House today

Initially, the director and all other staff had offices in the Roeblings’ two-story schoolhouse/gymnasium now called the Roebling House.

Work began fairly quickly on the first modern office and laboratory building, later named the Dorothy R. Roebling Laboratory Building. That building was completed in 1970.

In late 1969, Skidaway Institute received a new director who would play a dominant role in shaping the course of the institute over the next 23 years. David Menzel had wide-ranging experience as a marine scientist and took the reins of Skidaway Institute after a six-year tenure at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He brought an instant visibility to Skidaway Institute with his research reputation in oceanography, and his national and international connections. Soon after his arrival at Skidaway, he started hiring several young scientists from various oceanographic graduate schools. Whether a biologist, chemist or physicist, scientists were expected to approach questions in a multidisciplinary fashion and in cooperation with others, so they looked at an issue across all the disciplines. His aim was to establish an oceanographic research group capable of addressing interdisciplinary research topics, particularly those focused on coastal oceanographic processes. Through Menzel’s efforts, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography became one of the true pioneers of interdisciplinary coastal oceanography.

Because of his stature and connections, and the quality of the faculty he hired, Menzel was able to integrate the faculty into national and international research programs, workshops and meetings. This allowed them to network and make connections with colleagues, which often led to research collaborations that lasted decades.

Skidaway Institute research has covered the world, including sites as distant as Antarctica.

During the 1970s, much of Skidaway Institute’s research was focused on understanding biogeochemical processes and their relationship to circulation on the continental shelf, a true interdisciplinary endeavor. This has remained an underlying theme of Skidaway Institute’s research to the present day. Early research benefited from large block grants from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), later the Department of Energy (DOE). The AEC/DOE was interested in knowing the potential impacts of all things related to energy production and exploration.

Skidaway Institute scientists deploy a sediment trap.

The National Science Foundation declared the International Decade of the Ocean from 1971 to 1980. Skidaway Institute and Menzel took the lead in one major international project, the Controlled Ecosystem Pollution Experiment (CEPEX), the results of which spun off a second program — Vertical Transport and Exchange (VERTEX). These two projects provided funds that supported Skidaway Institute scientists for several years. CEPEX studied the responses of pelagic marine food chains to low and chronic levels of various contaminants. It originated with concerns about the potential impact of fossil fuel exploration and energy production, along with nuclear power production, on the marine environment. VERTEX’s goal was to determine just how much carbon in the form of phytoplankton detritus sank to the sea floor over a given period of time, aimed at a better understanding of the global carbon cycle.

In 1993, Menzel retired. Skidaway Institute’s first faculty scientist, Herb Windom, moved up to the director’s office. He began a campaign to significantly upgrade Skidaway Institute’s research fleet. The former fishing trawler, the Research Vessel Blue Fin, had limited capability and was aging. Eventually, the institute ordered the construction of the 92-foot, 300-ton R/V Savannah, which was built in Maine and arrived at Skidaway Institute in September 2001.

R/V Blue Fin

The R/V Savannah is part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet and has been utilized by Skidaway Institute scientists as well as scientists from other institutions to conduct marine research in regions as far-flung as Chesapeake Bay, the western Gulf of Mexico and the coast of South America.

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Tricia Windom christens the R/V Savannah.

R/V Savannah at the fuel dock on the Skidaway Institute campus.

In 2001 Windom retired, and Rick Jahnke was appointed acting director until Jim Sanders, who years earlier had been a graduate student at Skidaway, took over the leadership of the institute. During Sanders’s first several years as director, the institute was challenged by funding issues as the recession of 2002-3 and the “great recession” that began in 2008 cut into the institute’s state and federal funding. The reduction in funding resulted in a reduction of support staff and the elimination of Skidaway Institute’s engineering department.

During this time, however, the institute also saw an expansion of its facilities and evolution within its faculty. The long-awaited Marine and Coastal Science Research and Instructional Center, a modern laboratory research structure, was funded through a $5 million appropriation by the Georgia General Assembly in 2006 and was completed in 2009.

Marine and Coastal Science Research and Instructional Center

It provided much needed office and laboratory space. In 2008, the General Assembly approved a $1.2 million capital appropriation to replace the institute’s aging wooden main dock with a modern concrete pier and floating docks, and to renovate two other  docks. Finally, in 2015, the state approved a $3 million appropriation to extensively renovate the Institute’s iconic, circular cattle barn (a legacy of the Roebling era) into a modern space designed to provide meeting areas, teaching spaces and exhibits for the interested public—in essence, a new “front door” for Skidaway Institute.

The 2000s also saw a transition of the Skidaway Institute faculty. In addition to Windom, a number of faculty scientists who had long been the core of the institute’s research retired, including Dick Lee, Gustav Paffenhöfer, Stuart Wakeham, Rick Jahnke and Jack Blanton. (Windom, Lee and Paffenhöfer continue to be active at the institute in an emeritus status.) These retirements, along with the death of Peter Verity, created space for an influx of new and younger researchers. During Sanders’ tenure as director, 10 new members joined the Skidaway Institute faculty. Five of those new hires were women.

In 2012, after nearly 40 years as an autonomous unit of the USG, Chancellor Hank Huckaby directed that Skidaway Institute be merged into the University of Georgia. That merger became official on July 1, 2013. The director of Skidaway Institute now reports to the university’s provost’s office. Currently the faculty are all part of the Department of Marine Sciences. The merger created a fresh set of challenges, from combining accounting systems to differences in culture and mission. The educational component of Skidaway Institute’s mission grew with the acquisition. Skidaway faculty have UGA graduate students working in their labs each year, and planning is underway to provide other unique learning experiences for graduate and undergraduate students.

In 2015, Sanders announced he would be stepping down as director in 2016. Long-time faculty member Clark Alexander was appointed interim director, and in 2017, that appointment was made permanent.

Since 1968, Skidaway Institute and its scientists have shown leadership outside of academic settings as well, providing valuable guidance to state and regional planners, resource managers and industrial stakeholders. Skidaway Institute scientists have served on national, regional, state and local advisory boards for organizations such as the EPA, National Science Foundation, NOAA-Sea Grant, NOAA-National Marine Sanctuaries, Governors South Atlantic Alliance, Georgia Coastal Management Program and the Chatham County Planning Commission.

After 50 years, nearly all the faces have changed. The technology is vastly different. The challenges are different too. Yet the mission of Skidaway Institute remains the same, to create and communicate a deeper understanding of our world through leading-edge research in the marine and environmental sciences and by training tomorrow’s scientists.

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Benthic chambers and the R/V Savannah

By Debbie Jahnke

Editor’s Note: Rick and Debbie Jahnke were long time fixtures at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Rick was a faculty scientist and, for a short time, interim director. Debbie was his research coordinator. They retired in 2008 and now reside in Port Townsend, Wash.

Wandering through the latest Skidaway Campus Notes (Fall 2017), I encountered “R/V Savannah Demonstrates a Broad Geographic Range in 2017,” and there was a photo of an autonomous vehicle being recovered by the R/V Savannah in the Gulf of Mexico. That particular autonomous vehicle appears to be one of a family that started life as a BECI (Benthic Experimental Chamber Instrument), first built at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and then trucked across country in 1987 when the Jahnkes moved to Savannah and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. (Back then, we weren’t “the Jahnkes” yet. That didn’t happen until 1999.)

Two more BECIs of this type were built at Skidaway Institute but Lee Knight (emeritus Assistant Director/Engineer) had them constructed with hexagonal structural horizontals rather than the circular original. Skidaway Institute’s machine shop didn’t have the equipment to make the round bend. One of the BECIs was lost at sea on the Ceara Rise, an underwater feature off the east coast of Brazil in 1994.

When we departed Skidaway for our “left coast” retirement in 2008, Martial Taillefert (Georgia Tech) was kind enough to adopt the old BECIs and various other benthic instruments and all their paraphernalia. It’s a pleasure to see what appears to be a BECI or a close relative in active use. There’s an additional float on her frame now, which must mean there is also more of a scientific payload to buoy.

It is a bonus to note that the BECI is going to sea on the R/V Savannah, as Rick had been closely involved in the design of the vessel and was acting director of Skidaway Institute when Trish Windom christened our brand-new, almost-finished ship in the Bath, Maine shipyard. Rick served briefly as acting director between Herb Windom’s retirement and the arrival of Jim Sanders as new director.

The completed R/V Savannah arrived from the shipyard in Maine just after midnight on September 12, 2001. Rick and I were waiting on the Skidaway Institute dock with Lee Knight when our ship appeared out of the dark downriver, heading for her new home. The World Trade Towers had just fallen, and chaos was in force. The crew hadn’t had radio contact, so we didn’t even know if they were okay. Skidaway Institute had a muted commissioning celebration for our new ship.

Now, Skidaway Institute has gained a new director who originally arrived as a post-doc quite a few years ago, and now has quite a bit of gray in his beard (Congratulations, Clark!). We’ve been retired more than nine years, but the BECI and her benthic companions are still hard at work. We wish the BECIs, the R/V Savannah and all their human collaborators past, present and future, a happy and successful 2018.

NSF grant funds Diaz’s research

Julia Diaz

UGA Skidaway Institute researcher Julia Diaz is the lead scientist on a $852,906 three-year grant from the National Science Foundation titled “Collaborative Research: Assessing the role of compound specific phosphorus hydrolase transformations in the marine phosphorus cycle.” Diaz and her colleague, Solange Duhamel from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, will study how phytoplankton cope with shortages of phosphorus in the ocean, and if phytoplankton in phosphorus-rich environments also exhibit some of the same strategies. Skidaway Institute’s share of the grant is $296,831 and the funding began on Sept. 1, 2017.

Environmental group honors Skidaway campus employees

The environmental group One Hundred Miles recently honored three campus employees by inducting them into their second class of the One Hundred Miles 100: Individuals and Businesses Making a Difference for Georgia’s Coast.

Jay Brandes

UGA Skidaway Institute researcher Jay Brandes was recognized for his research and efforts on plastics and microplastics in the coastal environment.

Each of the first 50 nominees was asked to choose someone they wished to honor to complete the second set of 50. Brandes chose his partner on the microplastics project, Dodie Sanders from the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

“I can honestly say that I would not have been able to ramp up this work without her encouragement, assistance and wisdom about the coastal environment here,” Brandes said. “Dodie is a relentlessly positive, innovative educator who has taught me a great deal about working with the public, K-12 teachers and students.”

In addition, Becky Shortland from Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary was also honored. Sapelo Island Manager Fred Hay nominated Shortland “for her pivotal role in bringing the Coastal Management Program to Georgia.”

One Hundred Miles hosted a reception to celebrate the honorees on January 13th following their Choosing to Lead Conference on Jekyll Island.

Evening @ Skidaway launches UGA Skidaway Institute’s 50th anniversary celebration

Since 1968, when the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography was founded, the science of oceanography has grown by giant proportions. Now a part of the University of Georgia, Skidaway Institute has been in the middle of that growth, conducting marine research from the coast of Georgia to sites all over the world.

The story of that growth and how UGA Skidaway Institute contributed to it will be the focus of a special Evening @ Skidaway program on Tuesday, Feb. 20, in the McGowan Library on the University of Georgia Skidaway Marine Science Campus. (10 Ocean Science Circle, Savannah, GA 31411) The event will begin with a reception at 6:15 p.m., followed by the program at 7 p.m.

Herb Windom

In a talk titled “50 Years of Science at Skidaway Institute: People, Platforms and Partnerships,” Skidaway Institute scientist Herb Windom will look back at the amazing progress of marine research and the way it has opened mankind’s eyes to the wonders and mysteries of the ocean.

In 1968, Windom was the first faculty scientist hired at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. As he conducted his own research, he also watched the science grow as new researchers and technology allowed scientists to answer questions they hadn’t known to ask years earlier. Windom also served as director of the Institute for several years in the 1990s. He retired in 2001, but remains active as an emeritus professor, conducting research and advising other scientists.

The program is open to the public, and admission is free. Space is limited. To reserve a seat, please call (912) 598-2325 or email mike.sullivan@skio.uga.edu.

The Evening @ Skidaway program will kick off a year-long series of special events to celebrate the Institute’s 50th anniversary.

March 13 — Dr. Bill Savidge / So how much is a salt marsh really worth?
April 10 – Dr. Dana Savidge / Ocean Forces in the Graveyard of the Atlantic
May 15 — Open Lab Night / Visit informally with researchers in their labs.
June 12 –Dr. Catherine Edwards/ Exploring the Ocean with Underwater Robots
July 10 — Open Lab Night
August 14 — Dr. Cliff Buck / Ocean Acidification: The Other Carbon Problem
September 11 — Dr. Clark Alexander / Sea Level Rise and What It Means to Coastal Georgia
October 9 —  Dr. Jay Brandes / Microplastics: The New Pollution
November 13 — Dr. Elizabeth Harvey / The Magnificent World of Plankton

Glider partners come to the rescue during Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma presented an interesting problem to UGA Skidaway Institute scientist Catherine Edwards and other glider operators in the Southeast. They had several autonomous underwater vehicles or “gliders” deployed off the east coast as the hurricane approached, including Skidaway Institute’s glider, “Modena.” Edwards and the others were confident the gliders themselves would be safe in the water, but the computer servers that control them would not.

Catherine Edwards works on “Modena.”

The gliders are equipped with satellite phones. Periodically, they call their home server, download data and receive instructions for their next operation. It was expected that Skidaway Institute would lose power for at least several days (as did happen). However, Skidaway’s backup server partner at the University of South Florida’s marine science facility in St. Petersburg, Fla. was also directly in the storm’s projected path.

“In the week before she hit, Irma sort of blew up our hurricane emergency plans,” Edwards said.

Several other options, including Teledyne Webb’s back-up servers and Rutgers University were not feasible for technical reasons. Glider operators at Texas A&M University came to the rescue. Catherine was able to instruct “Modena” to switch its calls over the Texas A&M server. No data was lost and “Modena” continued its mission.

According to Edwards, two big lessons emerged from the experience.

“First, most of us rely on nearby or regional partners for emergency and backup support, but disasters are regional by nature, and the same Nor’easter or hurricane can take you down along with your backup,” she said. “Second, there aren’t a lot of glider centers that can absorb several gliders on a day’s notice, and there are some compatibility and operations issues involved, so it is best to identify our potential partners and build out these steps into our emergency plans well in advance.”

Skidaway Island Marathon organizers support UGA Skidaway Institute

The organizers of the 2017 Skidaway Island Marathon recently presented a donation of $600 to the Associates of Skidaway Institute. Endurance Race Services organized the March 25 race, which had both its start and finish lines on the UGA Skidaway Marine Science Campus. The marathon organizers support a number of area nonprofits with the race proceeds. This was the third year the Skidaway Island Marathon was based out of the Skidaway campus.

Dan Pavlin (l) from Endurance Race Services presents a check to Skidaway Institute interim executive director Clark Alexander.