Dept. grad students Ferguson and Cook win R.J. Husky Graduate Research poster awards

Department News

Environmental Sciences students Amy Ferguson and Brynn Cook won top awards for posters at the 2017 Robert J. Huskey Graduate Research Exhibition. Amy’s poster “Making the case for nature-based solutions to coastal erosion in Virginia’s coastal bays” tied for 1st Place in Division 1 – Natural Sciences Poster Presentation. Brynn’s poster won 1st Place in Division 2 – Natural Sciences Poster Presentation. The R.J. Huskey exhibition showcases the work done by graduate students at the University of Virginia. Each poster was rated on how effectively it: 1) set up the question being investigated; 2) framed the question in context of its broader importance; 3)communicated an evidence-based argument; 4) was accessible to an audience of diverse backgrounds.

Focused on the Virginia Coast Reserve as part of the Long-Term Ecological Research site, Amy’s poster focused on the suitability of nature-based protection techniques to reduce coastal erosion. Sea level rise, increased storminess, and human population growth amplify coastal erosion problems, pressuring landowners to implement shoreline protection measures. Growing concern over the negative impacts of traditional shoreline protection methods (seawalls or bulkheads) has increased interest in nature-based solutions, called “living shorelines”. Studies offer encouraging findings that living shorelines that use natural marsh vegetation and constructed oyster reefs can control erosion while maintaining ecosystem functions.

Her project explores the factors influencing erosion along salt marshes and the suitability of individual shorelines for nature-based protection techniques. Using geospatial information, a Marsh Vulnerability Index was developed that relates disparate factors related to shoreline erosion and serves as the foundation for living shoreline design and placement recommendations. Field study investigated the effects of marsh vegetation and constructed oyster reefs in Virginia’s coastal bays on dampening waves, the main driver of shoreline erosion. Marsh vegetation was found to dampen waves by 91% over a 20-meter transect when water levels are high; and, constructed oyster reefs were effective at dampening waves when water levels are low to moderate. These results suggest that combining marsh vegetation with constructed oyster reefs may offer effective and sustainable long-term coastal protection.

Ultimately, data from this study will be incorporated into The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience online decision-support tool, where it can be easily viewed, queried, and analyzed with other geospatial data to find cost-effective, nature-based solutions to coastal erosion problems.