By Meghan Savona
The waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks are an extremely dynamic area. With colliding currents of varying origin, temperature, and salinity, the coast of Cape Hatteras is a hotspot for studying the way that different currents interact.
“North Carolina is kind of like the Mason-Dixon line of physical oceanography,” researcher Mike Muglia explained.
Muglia from UNC Coastal Studies Institute (UNC CSI) is collaborating with a number of other scientists from Georgia to Massachusetts who are studying this area where currents meet.
“Two water masses — the South Atlantic Bight and the Mid Atlantic Bight — meet right here. Because of their different salinities and temperatures, they’re kind of like oil and water but not that extreme,” Muglia said. “That front (where two water masses meet) is called the Hatteras Front and wind and buoyancy forcing move and mix it back and forth around Cape Hatteras. We’re studying that as part of the Processes Driving Exchange at Cape Hatteras Project (PEACH project).”
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the PEACH project is focused on studying and identifying the processes that drive the exchange of water between the deep ocean and the narrow continental shelf. Using the data collected from a variety of observational techniques and platforms, different oceanic currents and water masses can be identified to better understand coastal processes. Utilizing research to create models and maps, the goal of PEACH is to create a more cohesive understanding of the oceanic exchanges off the coast of Cape Hatteras.
Muglia is part of a team interested in quantifying the available energy of our oceans and tracking how the coastal processes shift and stay the same, both seasonally and long-term. Observations made by both the North Carolina Renewable Ocean Energy Program and PEACH programs complement each other to help both programs increase their knowledge of the current processes off Cape Hatteras.
Different observation methods are being used to obtain a better understanding of how the currents interact. Through shore-based radar systems, ocean measurements will be taken from four radars located in Salvo, Buxton, Frisco, and Ocracoke Island to obtain measurements of surface currents at about one-mile increments all across the shelf.
“We think we will find very complex circulation here because of all the things blowing around. This will be a brand new way of looking at this area in terms of circulation,” Dana Savidge of Skidaway Institution of Oceanography said.
The research and observations made by Muglia and the research team are multifaceted, contributing to larger research projects while also providing a better understanding of the ways our oceans affect our local community. Knowledge of coastal processes will increase the understanding of how this water exchange may impact our local economy and environment. Living somewhere that’s dependent on the health of marine life, it’s important to have an idea of ways that natural processes potentially impact the environment and economy.
Research projects like PEACH help determine how coastal processes affect marine ecosystems and pollution transport, increasing our knowledge of how water masses work on a global and local scale.
“The more we understand about the world the more we can help protect our resources, responsibly exploit our resources, and invent new things that improve our lives,” Savidge explained. “We need to be able to understand how circulation affects things that matter to humans like whether carbon dioxide is being removed efficiently, or if there will be an infinite amount of nutrients to support the food web.”