One Hundred Miles 100:Researchers and Innovators
Honoring researchers and innovators in the scientific community who help us better understand our wildlife and wild places, and whose research creates innovative solutions that protect our Georgia coast
Dr. Clark Alexander is a Professor and Interim Executive Director at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, a ultidisciplinary research institution located on a 700-acre campus on Skidaway Island, 16 miles southeast of Savannah. Clark has been with the institute since 1989 and has conducted research on the Georgia coast for the past 25 years. Thanks to his vision and leadership, UGA Skidaway Institute is renowned for leading edge research on marine and coastal systems, and the training of tomorrow’s scientists. Further, he has helped advance the work of institutions across the coast, having served on the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Advisory Board, the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, and the Georgia Coastal Marshlands and Shore Protection Committees. Day in and day out, Clark advances our understanding of critical issues facing Georgia’s coast, including barrier island erosion patterns and the effects of climate change on marsh habitats.
Dr. Chester (CJ) Jackson loves what he does and has a passion for Georgia’s coast. But he’s concerned about how sea level rise is going to impact our coastline. That is why he developed a free, open source suite of software tools known as AMBUR (Analyzing Moving Boundaries Using R) to help coastal scientists, planners, and managers better analyze and understand shoreline changes and to accurately assess resources threatened by erosion. CJ created AMBUR while he was in graduate school at the University of Georgia, and now works as an assistant professor of Geology at Georgia Southern University, teaching students and training professionals and citizens to use this helpful tool. As the tides turn and our shoreline changes, we will be able to better understand, prepare, and respond, all thanks to the work of scientists like CJ Jackson.
According to Dr. Jason Evans, coastal population growth is on a “collision course” with sea level rise. That’s why he’s dedicated to helping local governments adopt policies that help our communities prepare for to the effects of climate change. Jason, assistant professor of environmental studies at Stetson University in Florida, has worked with coastal communities (including the cities of St. Marys and Tybee Island) to develop sea level rise adaptation plans. These plans have been adopted and include policies that will assist people who live in low-lying areas while preventing new developments from occurring in vulnerable locations. As we move into a “new normal,” Jason’s focus on community-based sea level rise adaptation ensures that our people will be informed and communities across our coast will have the tools necessary to address the serious consequences of climate change. He says that the tide is turning for public perception – a trend that’s certainly been driven by the work of researchers like Jason.
Call it Sea Turtle CSI. At the University of Georgia, scientists are using cutting-edge technologies to aid in the preservation of sea turtle populations. The Northern Recovery Unit Loggerhead DNA Project was developed more than a decade ago by Dr. Joe Nairn and Dr. Brian Shamblin of UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources in partnership with Mark Dodd at GADNR. The project uses DNA taken from the eggshells of nesting loggerheads from Georgia and neighboring states from North Florida to Virginia to create a genetic database that helps researchers better understand their nesting habits. With each egg collected – one from each nest laid across the state – scientists can determine where turtles are nesting, when they return, and even track mother/daughter, sister/sister, and in a few special cases, grandmother/mother/daughter nesting relationships. This innovative project is also creating a legacy for the future: its data is used to make important management decisions for the recovery of loggerhead sea turtle populations.
The next time you kayak through a tidal creek or marvel at the sunset over the salt marsh, take a moment to give thanks for the dedicated scientists working day in and day out to protect our coast’s signature resource. At the top of that list is Georgia DNR biologist Jan Mackinnon. Jan has worked at the DNR’s Coastal Resources Division since 1999, and currently serves as the Program Manager for the Coastal and Ocean Management Program. Throughout her career, she has worked tirelessly to preserve our coastal salt marshes – from playing a pivotal role into the investigation of marsh dieback sites to piloting living shoreline projects across the coast. Jan’s research has shown that living shorelines, which are natural alternatives to more traditional (and disruptive) stabilization techniques such as bulkheads and sea walls, help to increase species diversity and productivity, improve water quality, and add to the ecological integrity of the area. And her commitment to our coast doesn’t stop there: for more than a decade, Jan has worked to instill the next generation with a strong appreciation for our natural resources as an adjunct professor at the College of Coastal Georgia.
Marine mammals like whales and dolphins rely on sound to navigate their underwater ecosystem. Though an essential piece of their daily life and survival, their heightened senses make them especially vulnerable to anthropogenic noises such as the intense sounds produced by seismic testing. Based at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, Dr. Douglas Nowacek is a leading researcher studying the impact man-made noise in our oceans has on marine mammals. His research is a cornerstone of the scientific evidence being considered by decision-makers in Washington D.C. regarding permitting for seismic testing off our coast. Here in Georgia, we celebrate the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale as our beloved state marine mammal – just as we celebrate Doug’s professional dedication and advocacy on behalf of our right whales and other marine species.
There are some big problems facing our world – and they require equally-ambitious solutions. Founded in 2010, the Ocean Exchange, motivates researchers and innovators across the planet to develop “Best in Class” solutions to some of our planet’s most pressing issues. Focused on improving economies, health, and our environment, the Ocean Exchange competition compels cross-cultural collaboration and cutting-edge innovation. After initial evaluation, finalists for two awards travel to Savannah in the fall to present their projects to a group of delegates. Their ideas help to improve everything from productivity to waste reduction and reduced use of our natural resources. Best of all, in order to encourage wide adoption and idea-sharing, the solutions are easily accessible via a searchable online directory. The Ocean Exchange fosters global innovation and brings revolutionary, world-renowned innovators and scientists to our coast every year, securing coastal Georgia’s place in the fast-moving world of sustainability.
It’s tough out there for an Eastern Indigo snake. Despite its docile nature, this majestic “Emperor of the Forest” faces threats ranging from habitat loss (98% of the longleaf ecosystem on which it relies is gone), to car strikes and the decline of species like the gopher tortoise, which dig the burrows in which indigos shelter. That’s why it’s so important that groups like The Orianne Society exist. Orianne works to conserve reptiles and amphibians in the wild while securing the habitats they need to persist. In addition to indigo snakes, they also help protect species ranging from eastern diamondback rattlesnakes to gopher tortoises, spotted turtles, and more. Among their many initiatives, they oversee the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve, a largely unfragmented stretch of more than 48,000 acres of protected habitat along the Ocumlgee River in South Georgia. The preserve provides a place where these species can not only survive, but thrive. In addition to these successes, they conduct critical research and offer robust education and citizen science programs. Their popular “Places You’ve Never Herped” field series is a great example of how the Orianne Society is advancing the cause of reptile and amphibian conservation in an extremely memorable, impactful way.
Sarah Ross has worn many hats throughout her career – from Director of Education at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Education Coordinator for the National Marine Sanctuary Program to her current position as President of the Wormsloe Foundation and Director of the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History (WIEH). All of those roles have given her a platform to positively impact our coast. Today she also serves on the faculty of the University of Georgia and as the of Director of the UGA Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe. WIEH, in partnership with UGA-CREW, is focused on the broad study of evolving land use on Georgia’s coast and the resulting cultural adaptations. Sarah’s research encompasses 1200 acres of the original 1730s Wormsloe plantation, working along with interdisciplinary teams from the University of Georgia that include geographers, ecologists, historians, designers, anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, and foresters. Together, Sarah and her programs are helping to preserve coastal Georgia’s past while looking towards our future.
The 6,100 acres of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR), located along the western perimeter of Sapelo, is dedicated to research, education, stewardship, and sound management of coastal resources. As the second area in the country to be designated as an estuarine sanctuary (later to be known as the National Estuarine Research Reserve), decades of information and cutting edge research have originated from the island. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016, SINERR offers a variety of programs highlighting salt marsh and barrier island ecology, nongame and endangered species, current research on the reserve, and Sapelo Island’s rich cultural history. Further, in extensive partnerships with research institutions (including the UGA Marine Institute, NOAA, and many others) SINERR contributes important monitoring data to measure changes in estuarine water quality and provide crucial data to researchers, natural resource managers, and other coastal decision-makers. They are currently focused on habitat restoration, oyster reef ecological studies, and invasive species monitoring, to name a few. In addition to their top-notch research programs, SINERR staff ensure school and public groups understand the critical issues – from global climate change to wildlife conservation – affecting Georgia’s coast.
Banner photo courtesy of Applied Wildlife Conservation Lab, Jekyll Island, GA