What do a recreational sailor, closet classical guitarist, and marine geomorphologist have in common? Maybe more than one thing. But, chief among them, these are all attributes to describe Dr. Paul Paris, Research Scientist at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) on the ECU Outer Banks Campus. Paris started with CSI in 2015 after two decades in public service. His skills in data science, geographic information systems (GIS), and marine geomorphology have made him an integral behind-the-scenes player in past and present CSI research projects ranging from modeling continental margins to mapping submerged aquatic vegetation in the Currituck Sound. As a geomorphologist, Paul’s research interests broadly revolve around mapping and modeling the shape of the ocean floor and analyzing the mechanisms that impact it over time. He is also fascinated by the idea of integrating disciplines across modern data and geo-information systems to support quantitative landscape study.
Paris did not arrive in the Outer Banks as a marine geomorphologist. Drawn by the area’s seclusion, sand, and sea, he left a Washington, D.C. position at NOAA to become Dare County’s first ever GIS administrator—a skill he acquired when a former supervisor deposited a box full of ArcInfo tapes on his desk with the instructions, “learn this stuff then teach us how to use it.” In the years that followed, Paris would proceed to become the first ever GIS administrator at the City of Chesapeake, VA, too. Though fulfilling in other ways, this two-decade tenure in public service proved to be a longer-than-intended hiatus from his passion in the marine sciences, brought to an end when he enrolled in North Carolina State University’s Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (MEAS) PhD Program in 2009.
With the mentorship of Dr. Helena Mitasova, Associate Director for Geovisualization at the NC State Center for Geospatial Analytics, Paul’s doctoral work focused on geomorphic and geospatial characterization of sandy shorelines and beaches. His dissertation focused on barrier islands and how they move in space and through time, considering not only how this movement is reflected through shoreline change, but more broadly, how this change is manifest across the island as a whole. The research utilized mass center analysis as a new way to detect and track large-scale change on a barrier island. Paris graduated with his PhD in Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in 2014 and started at CSI in the summer of 2015.
Even in a brief exchange, it is clear how much Paul enjoys the rigor of research. When asked about his favorite parts of science, he simply pondered, “The more I learn about the universe around us more I realize that I(we) know so infinitesimally little about it all, and yet the more awesome it all becomes. A little bit of science can nourish a whole lot of soul.”
Paul has worked on a variety of research projects at CSI, including a collaboration with Dr. Reide Corbett, biogeochemist and Executive Director of the Coastal Studies Institute, and Dr. J.P. Walsh, now at the University of Rhode Island, to quantitatively map and analyze the earth’s continental margins. Continental margins are the shallow, variously submerged plains that make up the transitional zone between land and sea. Due to their high biological productivity, large sediment and mineral deposits, and essential role in climate regulation, these margins are some of the most environmentally and economically vital areas of the ocean. Despite this fact, a quantitative geomorphic investigation of these prominent boundaries did not formerly exist. To fill this gap, Paris, Walsh, and Corbett utilized a novel geospatial terrain classification method to update long-held prior assumptions about the world’s continental margins. Ultimately, their work revealed that ocean coastal plains are actually deeper, wider, and more steeply sloped than previously recognized, serving to inform a large body of subsequent research.
Paul is now conducting research as part of the ongoing Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Evaluation in Currituck Sound (SAVE Currituck Sound), led by CSI and funded by NCDOT. The project utilizes biological, physical, and chemical parameters to map and predict the distribution of SAV in the study area over time. For Paris’ part, the challenge is to integrate and map the data collected by CSI, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other resources to determine the relative loss or gain of SAV, and more importantly, the drivers behind those changes. The results will inform NCDOT mitigation measures taken to reduce the impact on SAV during projects in waterways, like Currituck Sound, where the underwater vegetation is present.
“It can be tricky to work in the Currituck Sound due to water opacity,” Paris notes. “This is because a certain level of water clarity, measured by light attenuation, is required in order to reliably incorporate satellite image analysis in the SAV distribution assessment.”
Based on scientific literature, data do show days in Currituck with water clarity levels suitable for image analysis. Until recently, the odds of these ‘clear’ days aligning with the passage of an image collecting satellite, like NASA’s LandSat every 16 days, were slim, so nobody did it. However, Paris points out, “We’re now seeing smaller satellites outfitted with solar cells that make passes over the area every day. This means the new question is: can the known clear days in Currituck be synchronized with satellite imagery, and then mined out of the data set to allow use in SAV coverage analysis?”
To Paris, the (tentative) answer is “Yes.”
Even as we spoke, his desktop was upstairs running preliminary models to determine, with enough experimentation and image manipulation, whether the relevant information hidden in the pixels can be extracted and matched against known, mapped data where researchers have found SAV. This is a current research interest of Paris and the CSI research team, and one that he hopes to address with an additional proposal once the preliminary test is complete. This type of study would fit well with Paris’ broader research interests, which include the integration of various forms of geospatial and data science to support quantitative landscape studies. It is also an innovative approach to studying difficult systems, like the Currituck Sound, with broad application within the science community.
Paris’s professional road did not follow a typical, direct path. Instead, he followed one opportunity at a time, acquiring an eclectic skill set and an exceptionally high odometer reading on the way to ultimately achieve the same professional goal he started with: a career in marine science. Paris lives in Kill Devil Hills with his family, and when asked, promised not to provide any cliché advice to youngsters with similar professional dreams—citing that it is a lot harder to make sweeping statements about people than continental shelves. He did, however, allude to the notion of “follow your bliss,” coined by Joseph Campbell, in regard to his persistence and success in a difficult, yet fulfilling scientific field.