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Hurricane Preparation, Down to a Science

by Kathleen Onorevole, UNC Marine Sciences M.S. student in Dr. Michael Piehler’s lab
(Kathleen also contributes to the UNC Marine Sciences graduate student blog:

As Hurricane Matthew spins toward North Carolina, most UNC employees and students in Chapel Hill are preparing for a brief disruption until the storm passes. Three and a half hours away in Morehead City, the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) is abuzz with hurricane preparations of a different sort, as researchers gear up to study the storm while safeguarding their coastal lab.

Undergraduate and graduate students at IMS are in an optimal location for marine science. They can easily access their field sites, allowing them to respond to research opportunities on a moment’s notice. One of those opportunities arises when a hurricane is on the way.

On Wednesday morning, Dr. Chris Voss and her team of technicians were wading through a saltmarsh behind a Morehead City neighborhood.  “We have a row of PVC poles spaced roughly every 10 meters out into the marsh,” Voss explained, “and we’re deploying a wave pressure logger at each one.” The loggers are part of a study led by Voss and Dr. Johanna Rosman that seeks to understand wave attenuation in marshes, particularly the relationship between decreasing wave amplitude and vegetation properties. Voss’ team has measured marsh grass parameters at a number of sites, and Rosman will be comparing wave measurements from pressure loggers with predictions generated by models.

Hurricane Matthew brings the prospect of collecting novel data.  “We’re interested in the capacity of marshes to protect the shoreline,” Rosman explained, “and most data has been collected under normal wave conditions.  The storm lets us measure greater wave heights, longer waves, and higher water levels.”  These data can ultimately lead to a better understanding of wave movement through marshes during storms, which is relevant for nearby homeowners.

“A neat part of this research is that it’s happening right next to a residential neighborhood,” said technician Tessa Pfeiffer. “So we’re hoping that the results can tell us about the importance of marshes for flood control.”

For other research groups at IMS, the impacts of the storm will determine their next move. “We’ve pretty much been preparing for this hurricane all year,” joked Isabelle Neylan. She’s a technician involved with a hurricane resiliency study led by Carter Smith, a PhD student in Dr. Charles “Pete” Peterson’s lab.

“The overall goal of our study is to see how different types of shorelines change after a storm,” Smith explained. Her study sites include different types of shorelines along the NC coast that were sampled this summer, to assess conditions before a storm. They will be sampled again after a severe hurricane.

Ultimately, Smith hopes to identify impact of storms on shoreline profiles, building on research started in 2011 by former PhD student Rachel Gittman. “We also record storm damage costs to private property,” said Smith. Although Matthew will probably not be strong enough to trigger her post-storm sampling plan, the lab is prepared for the possibility.

The Institute itself needs to physically prepare for the storm as well. “Above all, we follow the local emergency management request for evacuation,” said Stacy Davis, the IMS Facilities Manager. Equipment is also secured or moved inside. This week, that included a collection of large wire mesh cages constructed by Olivia Torano, an MS student in Dr. Michael Piehler’s lab. The cages are ultimately destined for Lake Mattamuskeet as part of a seagrass study, but to prevent them from floating there prematurely, the cages were relocated indoors.

Larger scientific equipment normally kept in the field also needs to be retrieved. Tony Whipple spent Monday afternoon behind IMS, tying down a data collection platform known as an autonomous vertical profiler (AVP). Whipple is no stranger to storms in his role as Research Specialist in IMS Director Dr. Rick Luettich’s lab, which studies storm surges. Whipple explained that the entire AVP was removed from the Neuse River to avoid instrument loss. “The platform can also be a hazard if it gets loose,” he added. “It can bump into other boats and damage property.” The IMS research vessel, the R/V Capricorn, was also moved to a safe location and will be monitored during the storm.

In the midst of securing physical property, it’s also necessary to ensure the safety of live animals, such as flounder and crabs, kept on-site for studies. Davis explained that all animals are taken to a nearby facility with water flow and a back-up generator.

That all adds up to a flurry of activity, but Luettich says it’s well worth it. “It’s better to be over-prepared and underwhelmed by a hurricane,” he emphasized. With all of IMS battening down this week, the lab is well-prepared to weather the storm, and to advance marine and coastal science in the process.

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Related photographs and captions

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The autonomous vertical profiler arrives at IMS after being removed from the Neuse River.


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Tony Whipple secures the autonomous vertical profiler, a data collection platform that had been stationed on the Neuse River.



PVC poles mark the location of wave pressure loggers in a Morehead City marsh.









Technicians prepare to deploy a wave pressure logger. From left to right: Tessa Pfeiffer, Erin Spilman, David Kochan.








Technician Tessa Pfeiffer holds a wave pressure logger attached to a metal spike while Erin Spilman looks on.

Technician Tessa Pfeiffer holds a wave pressure logger attached to a metal spike while Erin Spilman looks on.











Dr. Chris Voss collects water depth measurements at the location of one of the loggers.









Dr. Chris Voss ensures that the wave pressure logger is properly secured at the sediment surface as the waves encroach on a saltmarsh in Morehead City.







2016-Hurricane-Matthew-Preparation-photo-12The team poses with a laser level and celebrates successful logger deployment at this field site. From left to right: Tessa Pfeiffer, Erin Spilman, David Kochan, Dr. Chris Voss.

One Response to “How UNC Institute of Marine Science prepares for hurricanes”

  1. Congratulations Kathleen! | The Piehler Lab

    […] on her laurels, the next week she published this great article about hurricane research at IMS (read it here).  Well done […]

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