Marine sciences doctoral student Emily Elliott holds core samples that she and other researchers use to help construct a history of North Carolina barrier island development and erosion.
To collect core samples, researchers plunge an aluminum irrigation pipe into the sound. A sleeve made for vibrating cement surrounding the pipe helps it move through the sandy muck. At times, a little muscle is needed to extract the sediment, as it has been in place for literally thousands of years.
Elliott took her first core in the field with her research advisor Dr. Antonio B. Rodriguez, left, and Dr. C. Robin Mattheus. Elliott says this can be a dirty job, but well worth the effort and a lot of fun.
The research includes direct observation and indirect analysis through cores. Here Elliott analyzes dune sediment on small islands on the backside of the barrier, indicating that these islands were once part of the larger island.
A section of the study area -- Bogue Banks, NC. It's a predominantly west-east trending barrier at the southern portion of the Outer Banks. The ‘bow tie’ shape of this barrier is the result of back-barrier erosion and narrowing of the central portion of the barrier island.
Elliott and research student Michael Prafka measure an extracted core. Cores, usually two-to-three meters long, can weigh 200 pounds or more. After capping the pipe to create a vacuum, researchers lift out the aluminum tube full of sediment, section it and bring it back to the lab.
The team takes short cores to determine sedimentation rates into the North Carolina coastal system through geochemical dating methods. Faculty and students work together within the multidisciplinary research department of Marine Sciences to solve issues along the coastal zone.
Of beaches and barrier islands
Three thousand years of underwater muck tell the story of North Carolina’s beaches and barrier islands. Emily Elliott, a doctoral student in marine sciences at UNC, knows the story well.
Elliott, along with her faculty advisor Antonio Rodriguez, other researchers and students have looked at the barrier island system of North Carolina’s Outer Banks in ways that nobody else has before.
The scientists focused on Bogue Banks, taking sediment core samples from the sound side of the islands. They also used geophysical data taken on islands and offshore and dating techniques to characterize the development and evolution of barrier islands.
“Our research highlights the importance that island narrowing and back-barrier erosion play in barrier island evolution,” Elliott says.
The islands are among the state’s most important resources, providing means for economic growth as well as protection against storms. Elliott’s research for her master’s degree was on how barriers develop and transition through time as a result of sea-level rise, climate variation, sediment supply and human influence. North Carolina Sea Grant funded the research.
Elliott says that the islands are relatively young in geologic time, so it’s important to determine how they are moving and evolving to preserve them for the future.
A chronological history
Using core data, radiometric and optical dating techniques and geophysical data, Elliott and Rodriguez constructed a chronological history of development for the barrier.
While Elliott enjoys the science, she also loves telling people in island communities about what the research findings may mean for them. “It is fantastic to talk with people who live where we do our research. They value the barriers, and by building their understanding they become more vested in protecting and preserving the barriers. This may be as important as the research itself in our effort to preserve and protect the North Carolina barriers.”
For her research, Elliott was one of 23 recent recipients of the University’s Impact Award,
an honor recognizing graduate student research that improves the life of people in North Carolina and beyond. The Graduate School, through the generosity of its Graduate Education Advancement Board members, sponsors the annual awards and recognizes recipients at a Graduate Student Recognition Celebration.
Elliott says that collaboration in the Department of Marine Sciences, housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, informs her research.
“Within our department alone, students and faculty are working on projects involving alternative energy sources through offshore wind farms, impacts related to the Gulf oil spill, coming up with new and innovative ways to forecast rip currents, investigating sediment and containment transport to our coastal zone, and so much more.”
Elliott is pursuing her doctorate under the guidance of co-advisers Rodriguez and Brent McKee, Ph.D.
By Scott Jared, UNC-Chapel Hill University Relations.