Summer in the Salt Marshes: Using Drones to Monitor the Health of Coastal Habitats

January 21, 2020

Last spring, Alexandra DiGiacomo ’20 (Biology) received a Bass Connections Student Research Award to examine how drone-based remote sensing methods can help assess habitat health and biodiversity in salt marshes along the North Carolina coast. Her project expanded on the research of the Developing Rapid, Cost-effective Methods for Evaluating Coastal Biodiversity and Resilience team, which has been investigating how noninvasive technologies can help researchers rapidly assess habitat health without causing further harm to the environment. DiGiacomo extended her team’s study to six new coastal sites and worked to refine the team’s data collection methodology and workflow. David Johnston and Justin Ridge serve as her faculty mentors.

Alexandra DiGiacomo.
Alexandra DiGiacomo at the Bass Connections Fair in April 2019 (Photo: Kelley Bennett)

By Alexandra DiGiacomo

Monitoring salt marshes along the coast of Southeastern United States has become increasingly important in the face of coastal erosion. Salt marsh habitat provides critical ecosystem services including habitat for local organisms, stabilization of the sediment, water purification and carbon sequestration. Currently, it is estimated that 50 percent of salt marshes worldwide are lost or degraded, making rapid and effective monitoring of this habitat incredibly important.

Photos courtesy of Alexandra DiGiacomo

Though many conservationists and academics have worked to assess salt marsh health, traditional methods generally require manual data collection. Manual collection of vegetation data can cause substantial harm to the marsh ecosystem through trampling of vegetation and disruption of the soil structure. Manual methods also restrict the size of the survey area given the limitations of human efforts. To assess the progression and decline of this habitat while minimizing human impacts to the ecosystem, I used my Bass Connections Student Research Award to develop a large-scale, cost-effective and replicable method of monitoring salt marsh health using drones.

Alexandra DiGiacomo.
Photos courtesy of Alexandra DiGiacomo

After finishing a year-long Bass Connections project with Duke’s Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory (MaRRS Lab) studying salt marsh, oyster reef and mangrove ecosystems, I was intrigued by the salt marsh modeling work and wanted to continue exploring this component of the project into my senior year.

The Bass Connections Student Research Award supported data collection, data storage and field materials. I spent the summer of 2019 at the Duke Marine Lab and worked with the MaRRS Lab to collect more drone data on local salt marshes. Throughout the summer, I surveyed over ten marshes in Beaufort and Shallotte, North Carolina. Throughout the year, I have continued to work on this project, and am currently working on submitting a subsection of the results to relevant journals for publication.

I am so grateful for the opportunities given to me by Bass Connections. Even beyond the financial award, Bass Connections has connected me to mentors, peers and friends integral to my development here at Duke. This project has inspired me to pursue senior thesis research studying the density and distribution of sharks across common coastal habitat, such as salt marshes, oyster reefs and sandy beaches, in North Carolina. I intend to continue both projects throughout my senior year and look forward to the discoveries to come!

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