UNCW assistant professor awarded $265K grant to study barrier islands

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — A UNCW assistant professor has been awarded a grant to study barrier island.

Joseph Long, assistant professor of oceanography, received $265,594 from the Department of Defense to investigate erosion and recovery cycles of barrier islands, according to the university’s website.

Andrea Hawkes, a professor in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, serves as co-principal investigator on the project titled “Beach Berms: The Missing Link to Predicting Decadal-scale Barrier Island Trajectories and Tipping Points?”

Initially, the research will focus on Masonboro Island, part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve and the longest undisturbed barrier island ecosystem in southern North Carolina. Specifically, the dramatic and abrupt changes that occur during storms and the gradual building of the beach that happens between storms will be studied.

Long says the ultimate goal is to understand how these events cause visible changes in barrier islands over the course of a decade.

“We’ll be using what we learn from our ongoing observations to build a model to predict these changes. Models that can predict how barrier islands will change over the next 10 years will provide science-based information that coastal managers need to make critical decisions,” he said.

In the third year, the research team plans to apply their findings and tools to other barrier islands, including Dauphin Island, AL. The project includes funding for graduate and undergraduate students to collect and analyze data and attend scientific conferences.

Long came to UNCW in 2018 after nine years as a research civil engineer/oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg, FL.

“I left that position out of a desire to work with students both in the classroom and on research topics,” he said. “I was only interested in schools that emphasized and rewarded teaching and also had infrastructure and opportunities to support coastal research. UNCW has the perfect blend of these.”

In her eighth year at UNCW, Hawkes came to UNCW from a postdoctoral research position at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She, too, values UNCW’s balance between teaching and research and its coastal location. As co-principal investigator she will lead the field sampling component of the project that will eventually inform the models. This entails the short- (pre/post storm) and long-term (post-storm recovery) instrumenting, measuring and sampling of Masonboro Island.

Long hopes to help beaches decide how to nourish and rebuild when necessary.

“And so if we have the models that predict what might happen in the future,” said Long, “we can also use those models to predict what would happen if we change the island in one way or another. How can we use this information to make the best decision about providing resilient and sustainable barrier islands.”

Long says places like Masonboro Island play a key role in protecting beaches and estuaries.

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