Gloucester Point, VA, United States
Gloucester Point, VA, United States

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science is one of the oldest and largest schools of oceanography focused on coastal ocean and estuarine science in the United States. Founded in 1938, VIMS operates three campuses, has 57 faculty members and a total student body ranging from 100 - 125 students, and is a part of the College of William & Mary. It is funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia and includes four academic departments: Biological science, Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health, Fisheries Science, and Physical science, and offers both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in marine science.The main campus is located in Gloucester Point, Virginia. Wikipedia.

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Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: SEES Coastal | Award Amount: 941.59K | Year: 2016

This research examines the potential for achieving sustainability in coastal systems where natural resources are impacted by both climate change and human responses to climate change. Chesapeake Bay shorescapes (a shoreline zone which includes riparian, intertidal, and near-shore shallow water areas) are used as a test bed because sea level rise creates risks for shoreline property owners and shoreline marshes. Property owner perception and response to the risk varies and their choice of a shoreline protection approach (armoring, living shoreline, do nothing) has consequences for the capacity of shoreline marshes to continue to provide ecosystem services. Impacts on marsh services that include supporting fisheries and improving water quality affect the larger estuarine system, with consequences for the many users of that system. This leads to regulation by government officials, who have their own perception of all these issues. Modeling the decision-making process of shoreline property owners, the ecological consequences of shoreline management decisions, and the perceptions of officials developing or implementing natural resource policies will discover opportunities and options for managing the combined human and natural system to desired outcomes.

The goal of the project is to discover the elements of the shorescape social-ecological system that have the greatest influence on attainment of sustainable outcomes. The research describes the trajectory of Chesapeake Bay shorescapes in terms of changes in amount, distribution, and character of shoreline types. The primary drivers of these changes are rising sea levels and actions of shoreline property owners to combat erosion. An analysis of existing information on shoreline conditions, property owner characteristics and property management decisions is used to model future shoreline management choices. A series of field investigations comparatively quantify multiple ecosystem functions (habitat provision, primary production, nutrient and carbon storage) of living shorelines and natural marshes along a continuum of estuarine shorescape settings and project future shifts in function under varying management scenarios. This information is compiled in a marsh function model that can use input from the shoreline management model. Future outcomes then are forecast under scenarios with alternative sea level rise and management conditions. Surveys of government officials responsible for policy development and implementation document the operative feedbacks from the ecological consequences of property owner decisions. Synthesis of this information identifies the characteristics of shorescape socio-ecological systems that enhance or detract from their ability to achieve sustainable outcomes. Formal guidance for coastal managers and policy makers will be developed using the results of this integrative approach to sustainability in Chesapeake Bay shorescapes.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: ARCTIC NATURAL SCIENCES | Award Amount: 405.19K | Year: 2015

The extent of summer Arctic sea ice loss is increasing and now occurs earlier in the year. As a result, it is predicted that the rate of growth of phytoplankton, the base of the marine food web that sustains subsistence marine harvests by native populations, will increase within the Arctic seas. The limited amount of available nitrogen, a required nutrient for phytoplankton, eventually will restrict the level of growth. Nitrogen gas dissolved in the ocean can be converted to a form readily utilizable by phytoplankton, but this has been considered primarily a warm-water process. The principal investigators of this project recently have observed this process in the Arctic Ocean, but there is so little data that its extent remains highly speculative. If it is widespread, it will change the way we think about future scenarios for the changing Arctic marine ecosystem, subsistence fishing, and, potentially, commercial fishing in the Arctic. The project will also contribute to workforce development. The principal investigator is an early-career, female scientist. She will use the project as a mechanism to entrain an undergraduate student into research. She will also use the project to sustain an existing educational collaboration between the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences and Hampton University, a historically black university.

It is hypothesized that microorganisms capable of fixing N2 (diazotrophs) are present in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, that they produce measurable rates of N2 fixation in near shore and offshore Arctic marine waters and that diazotroph community composition will differ between coastal sites, which are influenced by terrestrial inputs, versus open water sites. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas will be sampled during a cruise in late summer 2016, when hydrographic and nutrient conditions are likely to favor diazotrophic populations. The impact that N2 fixation will have on Arctic ecosystems is dependent on its rate, spatial extent and the conditions that favor it. As a consequence, on each cruise the PIs propose to determine diazotroph community composition, examine their distributions based on the presence of the nitrogenase gene (nifH), measure rates of primary productivity and uptake of inorganic and organic N and C substrates using 15N and 13C tracer techniques, and to compare these to hydrographic, nutrient, and overall microbial community composition profiles made along cruise transects. The proposed work will determine the extent of active N2 fixation within the region in the context of other key biogeochemical and microbial community parameters.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: CHEMICAL OCEANOGRAPHY | Award Amount: 560.97K | Year: 2015

Understanding the vulnerability of estuarine ecosystems to anthropogenic impacts requires a quantitative assessment of the dynamic drivers of change to the estuarine carbonate system. Estuaries are currently experiencing multiple environmental stressors that have significant impacts on their carbonate chemistry, making this assessment a major challenge. Although the effects of changes in nutrient run-off (i.e. eutrophication and hypoxia) have been long-studied in many estuaries, much less attention has been given to the impacts of global change on these systems. In this study, a team of field scientists and modelers will attempt to distinguish natural interannual variability in a major US estuary from the impacts of local anthropogenic changes (e.g., nutrient inputs, changing freshwater end member characteristics) and global change (increases in atmospheric temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and sea level), by using numerical models calibrated with CO2-system observations at appropriate spatial and temporal scales. If successful, this will be the first study to quantitatively distinguish between local and global anthropogenic impacts on the CO2 system in an estuary. The results are expected to have important implications for management of Chesapeake Bay because the impact of local anthropogenic stressors on the system, once isolated, may be mitigated by appropriate environmental policy implemented at the regional scale. Two of the PIs have a strong history of proven relationships with Chesapeake Bay managers and policy makers, which will insure direct infusion of these scientific results into ongoing management decisions.

In this project researchers will study the diurnal, seasonal, and interannual variability of the CO2 system in the Chesapeake Bay, a non-pristine estuary, using a combination of conventional shipboard sampling (of dissolved inorganic carbon, and alkalinity) and new high-frequency autonomous instrumentation (for observations of pH and CO2 partial pressure) to assess the impact of extreme events, like tropical storms and nor?easters on carbonate chemistry. These high-quality observations will afford a rigorous assessment of the uncertainty associated with a 30-year water-quality monitoring time series of pH and alkalinity. The team will use an estuarine-carbon-biogeochemical model evaluated and calibrated with the new and long-term observations. Sensitivity experiments will be applied to disentangle multiple impacts on the CO2 system in the estuary over the last 30 years, including increased atmospheric temperature and CO2, sea-level rise, eutrophication due to increases in nutrient run-off, and changing carbonate characteristics of riverine end-members.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: DYN COUPLED NATURAL-HUMAN | Award Amount: 431.61K | Year: 2015

Nearly half of the worlds population lives within 100 km of the coast, the area ranked as the most vulnerable to climate-driven sea-level rise (SLR). Projected rates of accelerated SLR are expected to cause massive changes that would transform both the ecological and social dynamics of low-lying coastal areas. It is thus essential to improve understanding of the sustainability of coupled coastal human-environment systems in the face of SLR. Salt marshes are intertidal habitats that provide a buffer for coastal communities to SLR and are also valued for many other ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, aesthetics, and tourism. They are highly dynamic systems that have kept pace with changes in sea level over millennia. However, projected rates of SLR and increased human modification of coastal watersheds and shorelines may push marshes past a tipping point beyond which they are lost. Developing realistic scenarios of marsh vulnerability demands an integrated approach to understanding the feedbacks between the biophysical and social factors that influence the persistence of marshes and their supporting functions. This project will examine the comparative vulnerability of salt marshes to SLR in three U.S. Atlantic coastal sites that vary with respect to sediment supply, tidal range and human impacts. The research team will also address how feedbacks from potential adaptations influence marsh vulnerability, associated economic benefits and costs, and practical management decisions. Additional broader impacts include incorporating research results into curriculum used at local schools, an on-line cross-disciplinary graduate course, and on-going teacher-training programs, as well as training one postdoctoral researcher, four graduate students, and eight undergraduate researchers. This project is supported as part of the National Science Foundations Coastal Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability program - Coastal SEES.

This project leverages the long-term data, experiments and modeling tools at three Atlantic Coast Long-Term Ecological Research sites (in MA, VA, GA), and addresses the broad interdisciplinary question How will feedbacks between marsh response to SLR and human adaptation responses to potential marsh loss affect the overall sustainability of the combined socio-ecological systems? The goals of the project are to understand: 1) how marsh vulnerability to current and projected SLR, with and without adaptation actions, compares across biogeographic provinces and a range of biophysical and social drivers; and 2) which marsh protection actions local stakeholder groups favor, and the broader sustainability and economic value implications of feasible adaptation options. The biophysical research uses historical trends, point and spatial models to determine threshold and long-term responses of marshes to SLR. Social responses to marsh vulnerability are integrated with biophysical models through future scenario planning with stakeholders, economic valuation of marsh adaptation options, and focus groups that place the combined project results within a concrete policy planning context to assess how marshes fit into the larger view of coastal socio-ecological sustainability. This integrated approach at multiple sites along gradients of both environmental and human drivers will allow for general conclusions to be made about human-natural system interactions and sustainability that can be broadly applicable to other coastal systems.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING | Award Amount: 329.68K | Year: 2015


A substantial portion of the nitrogen released in wastewater effluent from water resource recovery facilities is in the form of dissolved organic nitrogen. Despite the economic and ecological importance of the dissolved organic nitrogen, relatively little is known about how different nutrient removal treatments and disinfection procedures impact the chemical composition. This work is potentially transformative because the first step in dealing with the problem of organic compounds in effluent is to determine what is in it and then the extent that it is a problem in receiving waters. This proposal fits in one of the 14 Grand Challenges in Engineering which were articulated in a National Academy of Engineering report, managing the nitrogen cycle.

Past research has shown that a large fraction of effluent dissolved organic nitrogen can be bioavailable to estuarine microbes, and that low molecular weight-N substrates are released from effluent dissolved organic nitrogen during disinfection with germicidal doses of UV and chlorination and when it is exposed to sunlight or elevated salinities in the environment. What is still not known, however, is the amount and type of effluent dissolved organic nitrogen that is produced during different combinations of treatment and disinfection procedures within WRRFs and how these differences will impact how effluent dissolved organic nitrogen responds in the environment. The research proposed seeks to answer these questions. The proposed work will also extend past efforts primarily focused on N to include both C and P. This expanded emphasis is important because of the potential for effluent dissolved organic carbon to contribute to hypoxia/anoxia and effluent dissolved organic phosphorus to eutrotrophication in the environment, particularly in freshwater. The proposed research has three objectives:
1. Chemically characterize the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus pools present in the influent and after treatment in four sequencing batch reactors performing four different treatments (nitrification only, nitrogen removal, nitrogen and biological phosphorus removal, and nitrogen and chemical phosphorus removal) during winter and summer using wet chemical and high-resolution analyses. 2. Determine how differences in treatment process configuration impact the concentration and composition of low molecular weight-nitrogen and phosphorus following germicidal UV and chlorination relative to the effluent dissolved organic matter that receives no disinfection using wet chemical and high resolution analyses. 3. Determine how treatment process configuration and disinfection procedure combinations impact the effluent dissolved organic matter produced with respect to biological uptake and any changes in concentrations of low molecular weight carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus after exposure to sunlight and elevated salinities in receiving waters using wet chemical analyses. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the project is bringing together a team of oceanographers (PIs Bronk and Sipler) with an environmental engineer (PI Bott) to be a valuable means of cross fertilization of knowledge, tools, and approaches between the disciplines and communities of oceanography and engineering.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: ANTARCTIC OCEAN & ATMOSPH SCI | Award Amount: 451.24K | Year: 2016

Interest in the reduced alkalinity of high latitude waters under conditions of enhanced CO2 uptake from the atmosphere have been the impetus of numerous recent studies of bio-stressors in the polar marine environment. The project seeks to improve our understanding of the variance of coastal Southern Ocean carbonate species (CO2 system), its diurnal and inter-annual variability, by acquiring autonomous, high frequency observations from an Antarctic coastal mooring(s).

A moored observing system co-located within the existing Palmer LTER array will measure pH, CO2 partial pressure, temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen with 3-hour frequency in this region of the West Antarctic Peninsula continental shelf. Such observations will help estimate the dominant physical and biological controls on the seasonal variations in the CO2 system in coastal Antarctic waters, including the sign, seasonality and the flux of the net annual air-sea exchange of carbon dioxide. The Palmer LTER site is experiencing rapid ecological change in the West Antarctic Peninsula, a region that is warming at rates faster than any other region of coastal Antarctica.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: PHYSICAL OCEANOGRAPHY | Award Amount: 691.15K | Year: 2015

Water clarity in coastal and estuarine systems impacts ecosystem dynamics, influences essential habitat for key life stages of many species, and is also valuable for aesthetics and recreation. In Chesapeake Bay, water clarity has seemed particularly unresponsive to management practices, and has continued to decline over recent decades. Paradoxically, clarity has decreased more in areas with relatively low concentrations of inorganic sediment than in locations where riverine sediment loads have increased. Here it is proposed that the apparent disconnect between water clarity and input of sediment in the Chesapeake Bay and many other estuaries is related to the interaction of common estuarine flow patterns with the presence of excess organic matter. Through improved observation, modeling, and analysis of the interaction of estuarine physics with suspended organic matter and inorganic sediment, this study aims to transform understanding of the controls on water clarity in estuaries. States in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will invest billions of dollars over the next decade to further reduce runoff of nutrients and sediment. In the future, analogous investments may be required for estuarine watersheds nationwide. By evaluating how estuarine physics, organics, and sediment interact to influence water clarity, this study will provide valuable guidance on effectively investing these funds. This project will fund two PhD students on societally-relevant dissertation projects and provide engaging projects for undergraduate researchers.

In many coastal settings, the interactions that determine water clarity are sensitive to particle concentration, size, density, composition, organic content, and settling velocity, yet few studies have explicitly considered how these connect to generalized estuarine turbulence and circulation patterns. The main objective of the study is to better understand the interaction of small and large scale estuarine physics with mixtures of inorganic sediment and organic matter typical of partially-mixed systems. Novel field observations and numerical models will be developed to test these ideas and focus on the York River estuary, a logistically attractive, broadly representative, partially-mixed branch of the Chesapeake Bay. Field observations will characterize physical oceanography (circulation, stratification, and turbulence), as well as particle populations (including size distribution, concentration, density, settling velocity and organic constituents). Open-source, community-supported numerical models will be implemented to further investigate feedbacks between estuarine hydrodynamics, organic content, and sediment dynamics, incorporating multiple particle sizes and densities, and new formulations for composition-dependent flocculation, as well as state-of-the-art formulations for cohesive bed behavior. This work will test the following novel hypotheses: (H1): Addition of organic material further enhances the horizontal and vertical particle sorting that characteristic to the physics of partially-mixed estuaries. (H2): Organic matter added to low concentrations of inorganic solids results in relatively small, low density flocs having slow settling velocities (Type 1 flocs). Conversely, adding organic matter to high concentrations of inorganic flocs favors larger, higher density flocs, with increased settling velocity (Type 2 flocs). (H3): Organic rich flocs (Type 1) are especially effective at attenuating sunlight because they are suspended high in the water column and have a large cross-sectional area per unit mass. The end result of interactions with estuarine physics is that the addition of organic matter to the estuary degrades water clarity in the lower estuary and improves water clarity in the upper estuary, closer to the estuarine turbidity maximum.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: ECOSYSTEM STUDIES | Award Amount: 277.78K | Year: 2016

Tidal wetlands are among the most productive, diverse and economically important ecosystems on Earth. They are also especially vulnerable to human pressures and environmental change. Wetlands contain large reservoirs of soil organic matter, an important source of carbon and nitrogen to estuaries and coastal oceans, but very little is known about the processes involved in the translocation of these nutrients. This project will advance understanding of tidal marsh-estuarine interactions by linking processes between tidal wetland soils and estuaries, and assessing where, when, and how dissolved organic compounds are retained, released and transformed within the marsh soil-estuarine system. Results from this study will be integrated into enhanced monitoring and management efforts through partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. The project will improve models that predict the influence of wetlands on estuarine and coastal biology, geochemistry and pollution response. In collaboration with the Smithsonian Citizen Science program and teachers from middle schools serving minority students, the team will develop K-12 educational materials. Specialized training will be extended to undergraduate students, as well as graduate and postdoctoral researchers, with a particular focus on underrepresented groups in science.

This study will test three key research hypotheses that are critical for understanding the role of marsh soils and tidal wetland-estuary margins as buffers, reactors, and transformers of dissolved organic C and N, and that could transform our ability to predict the influence of wetland ecosystems on estuarine biology, biogeochemistry, and ecology. An integrative approach will be used to test hypotheses that combines rich datasets, process-focused experiments, and a novel coupled hydrodynamic-photo-biogeochemical model to investigate three understudied aspects of marsh export that likely control the seasonality and fate of dissolved organic matter in estuaries: (i) soil and porewater organic matter composition, (ii) adsorption-desorption on soil surfaces, and iii) photo- and bio- degradation in estuarine waters. Proposed activities incorporate a system perspective and cover a broad range of marsh environments (i.e., different marsh vegetation characteristics, soil type, surface area and salinity regimes) providing the ability to scale up and assess tidal marsh biogeochemical fluxes and processes across a range of spatial and temporal scales. Results from this research will increase understanding of the contributions of wetlands and estuarine systems to coastal carbon and nitrogen budgets, and improve predictions of the influences of natural and man-made stresses on ecosystem processes, biogeochemical cycles and exchanges along the continuum of wetlands, estuaries and the coastal zone. This information is highly valuable to managing the coastal zone in the face of accelerated environmental change and continued human pressures and, in particular, to evaluating the potential for managed restoration of wetlands to mitigate climate change impacts.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: BIOLOGICAL OCEANOGRAPHY | Award Amount: 388.00K | Year: 2016

High rates of dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) production and utilization in aquatic systems are typically attributed to microbial activity. Though it is known that there is a tight coupling between the production and consumption of biologically available DON, the composition, dynamics, and ecological significance of this rapidly cycled DON pool are less well understood. This proposal focuses on a component of the DON pool, creatine, which is historically understood as a product of metazoan activity, but appears to be both produced by phytoplankton and consumed by marine bacteria. Creatine is present in seawater in measurable quantities, which led to the hypothesis that creatine may be significant component of the marine DON cycle. DON cycling likely has a bearing on fundamental marine ecosystem processes with large implications for carbon and nitrogen turnover on a global scale. Broader impacts of this project will include outreach that focuses on connecting scientists with K-12 students through research experiences for teachers and lesson development in collaboration with the K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal, a statewide education research and development center at the University of Oklahoma. The project will integrate the research with inquiry-based teaching of rural secondary science teachers through Authentic Research Experiences in oceanographic science and microbial ecology. The K20 network includes 96% of Oklahoma schools, providing a unique opportunity to impact STEM education in Oklahoma.

The results of this project will help develop a better understanding of DON cycling, the ecological context of creatine uptake activity, and identify both creatine producing and consuming organisms in the marine environment. The importance of creatine cycling will be assessed via 15N tracer studies along the natural coastal-to-offshore productivity gradient observed in the North Atlantic. Tracer and molecular approaches will be used to investigate the importance of phytoplankton vs. bacteria in creatine uptake and, the taxonomic identities of creatine utilizing bacteria will be interrogated via molecular, stable isotope probing (SIP), and RT-qPCR approaches.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Continuing grant | Program: | Phase: SEES Coastal | Award Amount: 458.21K | Year: 2015

Researchers will use the oyster fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay as a test case for collaborative policy development that is grounded in sound science. Environmental policies often create controversy and can be difficult to enforce, particularly when people do not understand the reason for the rules or do not consider the rules to be fair. Natural resources can be better sustained by policies developed cooperatively among all affected stakeholders, scientists, and government representatives. In a systematic approach, the project team will hold a series of workshops in which a full set of stakeholders will work with scientists to guide development of a model, select policy objectives, and apply the model to make policy recommendations. A collaborative modeling approach will ensure that stakeholders have an opportunity to incorporate their values, objectives, and knowledge into the model of the estuarine ecosystem which will include many benefits from the natural system such as commercial and recreational fishing, safe swimmable water, and other ecosystem services. Researchers will study the sociology and economics that influence stakeholder involvement and policy formation in order to better understand the human dimensions, improve the process, and enhance the implementation success of recommended policies. The lessons learned regarding the oyster ecosystem and fishery will advance the tools and practices of sustainable management of shellfisheries. The policy recommendations from the stakeholder workshops will be evaluated by state and federal agencies, and if implemented, would be an outcome that would directly enhance coastal sustainability. One Ph.D. student, two masters students, and one postdoctoral researcher will be trained in the science of coupled natural-human systems. This project is supported as part of the National Science Foundations Coastal Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability program - Coastal SEES.

This research aims to improve the utility of predictive models for shaping natural resource policy and management. The research team will build an innovative natural systems model that integrates three-dimensional hydrodynamic, water quality and larval transport models with oyster demographics, human uses, and economics at a scale that is applicable to restoration and management. The modeling system developed will substantially advance methods for investigating, and understanding, natural systems with complex feedbacks between physical conditions, vital rates of organisms, and humans. Researchers will include stakeholder values, objectives, and knowledge in the model design process. Through a series of workshops, stakeholders will select the policy objectives and the integrated model will project how well policies are expected to meet these objectives. This iterative process will ensure that the natural system model will incorporate the complex human uses of the ecosystem. A targeted effort will be made to study the socioeconomic drivers of stakeholder involvement, information flow, use and influence, and the policy formation in order to improve the process and enhance the implementation success of recommended policies. By doing so, this research will advance understanding of the human dimensions needed to create sustainable policy as well as provide important new strategies for integrating natural and social sciences, and scientists, in sustainable resource management. This generalizable research component provides an important complement to the research on oysters, both of which will advance the tools and practices of sustainable management of shellfisheries.

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