A team of scientists from ECU and CSI have been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to study the impacts of Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System (APES) and adjacent continental shelf. The team is led by Dr. Siddhartha Mitra, Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and includes Dr. Reide Corbett, Dean of Integrated Coastal Programs at ECU and Executive Director of the Coastal Studies Institute, Dr. Erin Field, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, and their students. Their study will be the first to quantify the biological and chemical impacts from the 2018 Hurricane Season to the North Atlantic Ocean.
The study by Mitra, Corbett, and Field will provide new biological and chemical insights that are essential to understanding how megastorm events, such as Florence and Michael, disrupt the carbon cycle in the North Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream. When functioning normally, the ocean absorbs and stores a substantial proportion of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans. However, the pulse of inland water from the storms could temporarily change regional water masses, including the Gulf Stream, from a net sink to a net source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Understanding this ecosystem shift in the North Atlantic will inform us how intense storms rapidly mobilize stored carbon from soils to the atmosphere, affecting the climate-carbon cycle feedback loop. The project will also look to establish whether the increased deposition of organic matter and nutrients seaward of the inlets will lead to algal blooms—another harmful byproduct of nutrient and bacterial loading—in surface waters adjacent to the Gulf Stream.
The Outer Banks is frequently impacted by strong nor’easters and hurricanes that often include intense rain events, storm surge, and flooding. These episodes can cause extreme erosion and runoff of carbon, nutrients, and bacteria. The three inlets along the APES (Oregon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke) provide the fastest pathway for suspended and dissolved materials to travel to the Gulf Stream and are therefore the areas targeted by this study.
The research team will visit several proposed sampling sites to take initial post-hurricane measurements of the defined water quality parameters, including salinity, DOC, total dissolved nitrogen (TDN), lignin, chlorophyll a, DNA and RNA-based testing for microbial communities, and others. Mitra, Corbett, and Field will then further process the samples back in the lab with their respective students and research technicians. The team will return for additional sampling in late winter, when faux “pre-storm” conditions are likely to be re-established. These pre-storm conditions are important because they provide baseline readings for the likely conditions prior to the 2018 hurricanes. Their analysis will also utilize archived water quality data from NC Department of Natural Resources, ECU’s Water Resource Center, and prior research cruises. According to Dr. Siddhartha Mitra, project principal investigator (PI), “Understanding this link between the hurricanes, bacteria, and coastal carbon will help shed light on how such storms may affect climate change in the future. Moreover, understanding how regional hurricanes affect water quality in the APES is important to local agricultural, recreational and commercial fishing communities.”
The research will also promote the educational advancement of three ECU students by providing them with sustained field research experience across three diverse labs. Results will contribute to critical regional transformation in coastal communities by establishing a baseline for post-storm water quality expectations to inform management decisions and carbon budgeting.
The research falls under the NSF RAPID program due to the highly time-sensitive nature of capturing the plume of nutrients and suspended particulates as it moves through the OBX inlets and is entrained into the Gulf Stream. This research will add to the body of data required to better understand, predict, and respond to similar post-storm scenarios. Because it is a RAPID proposal, sampling and results from this work will be fast-tracked and readily disseminated throughout ECU and the greater coastal community to inform future research, management decisions, and carbon budgeting.