study erosion and rebirth
By Fariss Samarrai
the turn of the last century and until the mid-1930s, the town
of Broadwater on Hog Island, Va., was a popular destination for
summer beachgoers and a place where sport hunters shot hundreds
of birds per day. Commercial hunters and trappers bagged thousands
of ducks and geese for meat, and shorebirds for their plumage.
A seemingly endless supply of finfish, crabs, oysters and clams
were harvested daily, destined for restaurants and markets in
Philadelphia and New York.
degree student Steven Turaski uses a field computer to retrieve
water table elevations from below-ground recorders for his
studies of groundwater in the salt marsh. His research is
helping scientists understand the long-term fate of salt marshes
in the face of high rates of sea level rise.
for an islander was good, even if the swarms of mosquitoes were
thick enough to be called "Hog Island dust."
250 permanent residents of Broadwater earned their living on the
island. There were more than 80 buildings -- houses, barns, hotels,
fish houses, a lighthouse.
Most of the sandy wedge of land at the south side of Hog Island
where Broadwater once thrived has been washed away by the steady
pounding of a rising surf and by winter storms and the passing
of autumn hurricanes. Waves -- 14,000 of them -- hit these shores
every day, eroding and reshaping the island as they have since
long before recorded time.
"After a powerful hurricane in 1936, the second in three
years, the residents realized they were fighting a losing battle
against erosion," says Bruce Hayden, U.Va. professor of environmental
sciences. "The land they were on was melting away like
butter on a hot day. They packed their belongings, jacked their
houses onto barges, and floated their lives back to the mainland.
The community disappeared almost overnight. If you went looking
for where Broadwater was, you'd have to look in the sea."
No one lives on Hog Island anymore. Like most of the 13 other
low-lying barrier islands on Virginia's Eastern Shore, Hog Island
is now part of the Nature Conservancy's 45,000-acre Virginia Coast
Reserve. The island is accessible only by boat, after navigating
long, narrow channels through the salt marshes and crossing wide
stretches of shallow bay. The island is a sanctuary for growing
populations of migratory waterfowl, shore birds and song birds.
Island is now a natural laboratory for long-term coastal research
funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). U.Va.'s Department
of Environmental Sciences studies barrier island geology and
ecology there and operates the NSF Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term
Ecological Research (LTER) project. The project is one of 24 LTERs
around the nation conducting long-term environmental studies.
The Virginia project is the only LTER investigating barrier island
is perhaps the best place along the entire Atlantic seaboard to
study barrier island geology and coastal ecology," says Hayden,
who is lead scientist for the project. "These are some of
the most rapidly changing islands on earth."
Scientists at the LTER are monitoring sea level rise, groundwater
flow rates, marsh growth and erosion, bay water chemistry, fish
and shellfish populations, vegetation and mammal and bird populations.
Virginia barrier islands are made up of the finest-grain sand
on the east coast," Hayden says.
sand, an extremely fine-grained quartz, has been roiled by thousands
of years of flowing water. It is easily transported by currents
from one location to another. A combination of rising sea level,
currents, wind, waves, tides and storms shape these islands. They
are always eroding and rebuilding, always changing shape.
the dynamics of barrier island geology on Virginia's largely undeveloped
Eastern Shore has implications for the 139 million Americans now
living in coastal areas. Governments, property owners and insurance
companies are continually wrestling with ways to manage the inevitable
erosion of barrier islands. Conservationists are looking for ways
to protect these fragile ecosystems while realizing that masses
of people will always be drawn to the sea. By studying Virginia's
undisturbed islands, U.Va. researchers are gaining insight to
the natural processes occurring up and down the coast, and comparing
what they see with what is happening on the heavily populated
barrier islands in Maryland and North Carolina.
rapid change occurring on Virginia's barrier islands allows us
to observe a great many conditions over relatively short time
periods," says Robert Dolan, a professor in the department,
collaborated with Hayden and others on the original proposal to
NSF to establish the LTER in 1987. "Change occurs on these
islands 10 times faster than at most other coastal areas. Because
of this extreme sensitivity to sea level change and weather, we
can record how the physical environment -- the geology -- interacts
with the ecology. There's no better opportunity to monitor environmental
change over the long term,² he said.
Much change has occurred on these islands and in the surrounding
waters since colonial days. Although some wildlife were almost
wiped out, some are coming back. Many bird species are returning
to the islands and are growing in population. Seagrasses are being
re-established in some bay areas, and fish, including the prized
striped bass, are becoming increasingly abundant.
have several experiments under way to monitor and record change
and to assess the plants and animals on the islands, in the marshes
and in the bays," says John Porter, a research scientist
who has been studying small mammal populations on Hog Island since
his U.Va. graduate school days in the mid-1970s. "We are
trying to understand the processes of change, what role humans
are playing in that change and what part is natural. We are seeking
answers to questions that would not be possible without long-term
is a shorter version of an article that appeared in the July
2000 issue of Arts & Sciences.