Written by Julia Bachman, First Flight High School
Here at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), scientists, engineers and researchers endeavor to answer pressing coastal questions with unbiased scientific methodology. This research integrates the expertise of scientific leaders across disciplines, including natural and social sciences, engineering, and health.
Ian Conery, a PhD candidate and research assistant at CSI, sees the role of erosion, coastal management, and economic policy as vital factors that influence the future of our barrier island community.
Conery’s research consists of detecting and analyzing concerns involving offshore sand resource needs, beach nourishment projects in North Carolina, barrier island morphodynamics, shoreline change mapping, and geospatial analysis.
Just like many other families, Conery’s vacationed here on the Outer Banks during the tourist-filled months of summer. Growing up in Ohio, he earned a B.S in Geological Science at Ohio University (2011). Shortly after, he moved away from his hometown, Ashland, after realizing that he wanted to study the coast.
“When I was looking for graduate schools (on the coast), I kind of knew the area a bit and I figured that I should reach out to a couple of the professors, whose work I was interested in. We started chatting by email and phone and thought that this could be a good fit,” Conery said.
Although the coast was a big change in environment, he excelled and earned his M.S. in Coastal Geology at East Carolina University (ECU)(2014). Ready for the next step in his career, he decided to continue with his academic pursuits by starting his PhD.
Conery’s advisors, Dr. JP Walsh, who is now at the University of Rhode Island, and Dr. Reide Corbett (Co-Advisor/Executive Director at the Coastal Studies Institute), asked if Conery wanted to move to the Outer Banks and work in the lab while studying and working at the coast.
“It was a very very easy decision for me because that was really the reason I had moved to North Carolina, to be close to the ocean,” Conery explained.
Since starting his PhD, Conery has been working at the US Army Corps of Engineers-Field Research Facility, and the Coastal Studies Institute for five years and recently successfully defended his dissertation.
Conery wants to take a multi-disciplinary approach to better understand and manage our coastal zone.
Conery’s PhD work has three major parts that are interconnected. The first part is geologically focused, meaning that he mainly concentrates on the beach and dune morphodynamics, which refers to landscape changes due to erosion and sedimentation. Using a terrestrial laser scanner, the small scale changes in the beach and dune can be detected and compared to other results from previous years.
“We are comparing a managed, developed site that was nourished in Nags Head to an undeveloped, unmanaged site at the Duck Research Facility. By comparing the non-human influences to the human managed system, we are trying to see how our management decisions are influencing the different erosion and growth rates of the beach, and how we can best use that information to start to be able to predict these changes in a modeling framework,” Conery said.
By doing some aeolian work (work that involves the moving of sand and rock by wind), and looking at small scale changes, he makes observations to understand what’s driving the evolution and the change of wind and waves. That information is then used to predict what is going to happen in the future based on the geologic setting and the forcings. The laser scanner scans and builds a 3D model.
In North Carolina, there is a “no coastal hardening” rule, which means that even if the coastline is eroding a hardened structure–like a seawall or jetty–cannot be built. In Nags Head, during the year of 2011, beach nourishment took place and continued in neighboring towns two summers ago.
Beach nourishment involves the pumping of offshore sands from a borrow source, where a dredge extracts it from the seafloor and pumps it on shore. It is then dispersed by bulldozers until the profile matches a design template engineered to best dissipate wave energy.
“A lot of my work has been funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the primary goal of that work was to catalog inventory of all the geologically significant dates on North Carolina’s outer continental shelf 3-8 nautical miles. This proved to be useful and relevant for beach nourishment,” Conery said.
Conery and other researchers have collected data from federal, state, and local agencies, private contractors, and engineering firms to try to give coastal planners and managers a better idea of where their sand sources for beach nourishment might be. The idea is that they can better plan their project and more quickly respond to a storm event.
“What they realized after Hurricane Sandy, was that some towns were badly impacted and didn’t have any idea where their nourishment or borrowed sand might be offshore. It might seem like a pretty simple process, beach nourishment, a lot of people think that there is sand everywhere, but it isn’t really the case,” Conery said.
To start the beach nourishment process, detailed search efforts for sand sources and designs take place, prioritized to be economically efficient and usually comes down to how close the source is to shore, but the fact is that this viable sand that matches the native sands on our beaches is not everywhere.
“It is almost like the process of searching for and extracting oil,” Conery said. “You might be in an area and find out the sand is too fine or too coarse so there is a lot of testing that goes into this process.”
Conery explains how sound waves are used to penetrate through the seafloor and based on their return you can see what sort of layers or strata are underneath. Cores and sediment samples can then be taken and matched the sand on our beach. This matching process must also adhere to state-federal criteria for beach renourishment use.
“Economists are interested in the known supply of sand because we are slowly using it up,” Conery said.
In some cases, the cost might rise as the source diminishes.
Beach nourishment is the second major component to Conery’s PhD. Conery’s program is interdisciplinary so he has been focusing on geosciences with a secondary focus on economics and policy.
“This is ideal because beach nourishment is not just a scientific or engineering issue. It really comes down to a lot of other things including the policies that allow it–there is a very lengthy permitting process and the economic framework to take into consideration,” Conery said.
Especially on the Outer Banks, beach nourishment has been unique in a way because it is locally funded by taxpayers and county money.
The last part of Conery’s work focuses on understanding how nourishment funding works and how nourishment is influencing people’s rental behavior, including whether owners decide to rent their house or not, based on beach nourishment.
“My work focused on how the towns have structured to pay for these large nourishment projects. I looked at work projecting long term needs based on the known volume of nourishment sand. Luckily Dare County is fortunate to have plenty of offshore sources and we shouldn’t have a shortage of sand anytime soon.”
This differs when compared to the southern portion of the state because they have a lot more hard bottom habitat and do not have the sand shoal resources that we have on the OBX, so it is much more challenging for them to find large volumes of sand to nourish beaches.
Conery has been in the USACE Pathways Internship Program for a few years now, which is a program designed for students to allow themselves to work as much as their schedule allows.
“It has been great for me because some of the work has overlapped with my academic work, so I can use it to fulfill both,” Conery said.
Conery has benefitted by taking some of what they need and incorporating it into his own research. Research is a big part of scientific discovery, but both he and I agreed that science communication plays a big role in this process.
“I think that it is a very important task as a scientist to not just keep our findings to ourselves but to figure out how to most effectively convey the results to the public,” Conery said.
To be able to convey his findings effectively, Conery believes he must explain the importance of our resources and why maintaining them should be a priority.
“First off, I think that we need to show the importance of our beaches as a coastal resource and how they draw an immense amount of revenue for the state and secondly there is a variety of management actions that we could take,” Conery said.
Especially in developed systems like the Outer Banks, it is important to understand, that humans are influencing the natural process and it is important to find the best ways to best manage the very tightly coupled human and natural system.
Collaborating with experts in different fields can allow the most growth and improvement for the health of our environment.
“I do think that it is important that we are connecting across disciplines. Scientists are finding ways to communicate with coastal managers and planners and the public. Also, it’s important for scientists like me to collaborate with social scientists because when it comes down to it, humans and the decisions we make are influencing so many of these scientific processes. It is important to have a broad approach that includes hard scientists, social scientists, and communications, policymakers and the public,” Conery said.
When asked what he was looking forward to in the future, he stated, “The BOEM work is a regional project so I look forward to seeing what other states have accomplished because it may be similar or different to what we have done. This provides a great opportunity for learning and strengthening our own work by seeing what others have done. Hopefully, ultimately some of what I’ve done can improve management practices and also inform policymakers.”
Obstacles are inevitable and he has conquered many.
“Early on one of the biggest challenges was learning multiple software without having any background and learning how to do some programming has definitely been tough. The process of scientific writing is also very tedious. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to work with a lot of great, enthusiastic people.”
Conery has worked vigorously to be in the position he is in today and has had support from many.
“Family, friends, especially my wife who has been along for the journey, of course, my advisors and committee members, staff at FRF, and technicians,” Conery lightheartedly chuckled with “and I still have a long way to go since it is very early on in my career,” Conery said.