North Carolina Sea Grant
Coastwatch Currents

Coastwatch Currents

August 26, 2015 | E-Ching Lee

By JILL ARRIOLA

Posted Aug. 26, 2015

Jill Arriola is a doctoral student studying coastal hydrology and geochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Marine Sciences Department. She tweets as @JillbertUNC.

This past summer, I received a fellowship from North Carolina Sea Grant and N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve Program to explore the effects of sea-level rise on the Emily and Richardson Preyer Buckridge Reserve. It is located on the western shore of the Alligator River in Albemarle Sound.

My goal is to evaluate how fast sediment builds up at selected locations at the site and compare these rates to sea-level rise predictions. By estimating a net accretion rate of the Buckridge site — the difference between how fast the sediment piles up and how quickly sea levels are expected to rise — I can project the longevity of the site before permanent inundation.

I chose this site because of its proximity to local farms, towns, and surrounding wildlife refuges and reserves. Estimating the life expectancy of the Buckridge site will provide nearby communities with valuable planning information that could help protect them against future flooding.

Trees growing from the water

The coastal forest is starting to succumb to the Alligator River. Photo courtesy Jill Arriola

The first step of this project was to go to the Buckridge site — which I had never been to before — and collect sediment cores to analyze back at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Let me first say, the site is absolutely beautiful. We saw wild black bears, turtles, blue herons, and gorgeous green and luscious vegetation. This site is definitely worth protecting.

However, a very undeniable part of fieldwork is sometimes it doesn’t go as you planned. What I thought would be a simple sediment core extraction turned into what felt like an episode of Survivor.

Early one May morning, my undergraduate assistant Olivia Henley, boat captain Corey Adams and I headed out to the Buckridge site. When we left the dock in Frying Pan Landing, we noticed stands of dead trees in the water, as well as stumps of the former coastal forest along the shore and logs washed up from storms.

We also happened to venture out on a day when then wind was about 15 knots (17 mph), with 4-foot waves.

Getting to the site was challenging. While we were underway, a tree would suddenly appear in the trough of a wave right in front of us. The last thing we needed was to wreck the boat or get stranded on a tree.

Corey kept the boat slow and steady as Olivia and I kept an eye out for potential danger, sounding the alarm as though we were watching for icebergs. Eventually, we landed at our first site and prepared to extract the cores.

However, that luscious vegetation I mentioned previously turned out to be largely composed of poison ivy. We were fortunate that Corey spotted it immediately and told us whenever we were about to rub up against it.

Researcher facing tall vegetation

Can you spot the poison ivy? Jill Arriola found unexpected challenges during her field work. Photo courtesy Jill Arriola

Ok. Poison ivy identified. Trees avoided. Time to pull a core.

Except my core tubes would only go about 5 cm into the sediment. Turns out those tree stumps and wind-fallen logs also are buried under the coastal marsh. We were only able to pull a couple of 30-cm-long cores before we had to head back.

Two researchers in field

Kaylyn Gootman and Jill Arriola removed a core (orange cap) the old-fashioned way, with elbow grease. Photo courtesy Jill Arriola

Needless to say we were a bit frustrated — but also amazed at the complexity and seemingly rebellious nature of this site.

A month later, armed with experience and poison ivy treatment, my labmate Kaylyn Gootman, Corey and I headed back to the Buckridge site and successfully retrieved the remaining four sediment cores.

As of now, all six cores have been sectioned and dried for further analysis. I’m currently working in the lab to determine the radioactivity of the sediments. That data will enable me to calculate how fast sediments are accumulating on the Buckridge site.

Up next, I plan to present my findings this November at the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation Conference in Portland, Ore.

The research opportunity that NCSG and the Reserve provided me through this fellowship has been invaluable. I’ve learned new methodologies and instrumentation for analyzing sediment properties, gained ample amounts of field work experience, collaborated with national and state reserves and refuges, and attained a greater appreciation of the natural resources and beauty of coastal North Carolina.

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