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Scientific Partnership Aims to Help Shape Safer Coastal Communities

December 7, 2016

Coastal zone research projects will help managers protect developed areas' beach dunes, which are vital to resilient communities, ecosystems and economies.

University of Pennsylvania scientists will build a wind tunnel to test the sand-capturing capability of five types of dune vegetation. Oregon State University’s model of coastal dune evolution will be expanded to include management options such as vegetation planting, beach nourishment, and beach scraping. The University of Alabama will investigate the vulnerability of dunes to multiple storms. These are among the new research projects undertaken in a collaboration by coastal scientists in the federal government and academia. The goal is to improve management of coastal dunes, which are vital to maintaining the resilience of coastal communities, ecosystems and economies.

Beach houses behind a sand dune at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
Sand dunes like these, in Avon on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, are the only separation between many beach communities and the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Ann Tihansky, USGS

The U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association are working together to advance coastal dune science and management through workshops and research investments. The ASBPA led the first Nearshore Collaboration Workshop in Kitty Hawk, NC Nov. 29-Dec. 1. The meeting brought together coastal experts from USGS, the USACE, National Park Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Office of Naval Research, NOAA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of New Hampshire, and other academic institutions. The meeting is intended to become an annual event where federal and non-federal coastal scientists gather to develop opportunities for collaborative research projects in the coastal zone.  

The USGS, USACE and ASBPA have funded projects at Oregon State University, University of North Carolina, University of Pennsylvania, North Carolina State University, Texas A&M, and University of Alabama. These projects, which total about $250,000, are aimed at improving dune management in developed coastal communities.

 “High, continuous dunes are economically and ecologically sensible elements of a larger shore protection program,” said” Nicole Elko, Ph.D., ASBPA’s Vice President of Science and Technology. “Hurricane Matthew’s recent dune erosion (see USGS before and after images) highlights the need for a consistent national program to evaluate dune management strategies so that the nation is ready for future storms and sea-level rise.”

The academic studies support and build upon existing USACE and USGS dune research.  

“Coastal managers must balance the costs and benefits of dunes as one important component of healthy and resilient coasts,” said John Haines, USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program Coordinator. “To help guide their decision making, the USGS has been studying how sand dunes respond and migrate during storms and as a consequence of sea-level rise.”

Researchers at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center have also been studying dune evolution for the past three years, along with scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory.  “USACE coastal researchers take a three-pronged approach to research in dune evolution,” said Jeff Lillycrop, USACE Technical Director for Civil Works Research and Development. “Field data collection, physical modeling, and numerical modeling are all important.“

Higher dunes can help protect communities from damaging waves and surge; they can also impede natural coastal processes. Scientists need to better understand how dunes’ effectiveness in protecting developed areas will be affected by long-term coastal change, or by extreme events such as hurricanes. The projects are intended to fill in some of those knowledge gaps.  “The academic research studies address aspects of coastal dune modeling and decision-support analysis,” Haines said. “These projects will help to understand and assess the many roles dunes play in coastal environments.”

Each academic institution is collaborating with a local government agency or a non-governmental organization involved in coastal management. Each project will be presented at the ASBPA’s October 2017 Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

The 2016 research awards are the outcome of a workshop hosted by ASBPA in October of 2015, also in Kitty Hawk, NC, where nearly 100 coastal managers and researchers met to bridge the gap between the scientists’ and engineers’ research and the managers’ needs.

Projects at a glance:

  • Oregon State University’s research will expand a numerical modeling system for coastal dunes on managed coasts to include options such as vegetation planting, beach nourishment, and beach scraping.
  • Researchers at the University of North Carolina will combine OSU’s study results with observations of dune topography, vegetation cover, and wind data for a 15-mile (25-kilometer) stretch of the North Carolina coast. The work will support a numerical model of dune growth and change, and provide a database that can be used for future work on the effects of wind and vegetation. 
  • University of Pennsylvania scientists will build a wind tunnel to test the sand-capturing capability of five types of dune vegetation and develop methods to predict how vegetation affects dune stabilization.  
  • Research at North Carolina State University will work on dune construction guidance for projects where a constructed beach berm affects how waves can alter or overtop the dune.
  • A group at Texas A&M University will evaluate local stakeholder perceptions and management of coastal dunes.
  • The University of Alabama will investigate the vulnerability of dunes to multiple storms and then test and refine ways to predict dune responses to these events.



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