Understanding Land Cover and Storm Impacts in the Coastal Southeast

July 30, 2020

Figure 1. The view of southeastern North Carolina days after the impact of Hurricane Florence in September 2018 from Landsat 8.

View of southeastern North Carolina days after the impact of Hurricane Florence in September 2018 (Photo: NASA/USGS)

Two years ago, Hurricane Florence produced record-breaking floods in North Carolina. There were 42 fatalities, and 140,000 people registered for disaster assistance according to the National Weather Service. In response, Bass Connections launched its first “pop-up theme” for research on hurricane recovery and resilience.

Led by David Johnston, Justin Ridge and Patrick Gray, the Deep Learning and Remote Sensing for Coastal Resilience project team developed a methodology for long-term monitoring of land cover dynamics along the coast. The team automated the classification of satellite imagery into distinct types of land cover such as wetland, agriculture and forest. The data will help researchers understand the impacts of long-term changes like urban expansion and specific events like hurricanes. The team’s work is also guiding future drone surveys for areas that experienced substantial storm-related change.

Student team member Kendall Jefferys worked on applying remote sensing to ecological questions around coastal change and storm impacts. Recently she reflected on the impact of this experience.

Kendall Jefferys.By Kendall Jefferys (Environmental Sciences & Policy and English ’21)

As a sophomore, I was deeply interested in marine science and the impact that climate change will have on our coasts. I wanted to get involved in research, and I wanted to learn with people in different fields. This project fulfilled all those interests, but I was afraid I didn’t have the skills.

Allison and Kendall.
Kendall Jefferys, right, with Allison Duprey

As an English major, I was much more comfortable writing a paper on Shakespeare’s tragedies than I was with coding anything. But I think that is the value of Bass Connections: it’s okay to get out of your comfort zone. You may not be an expert, but you are curious. You bring a different perspective, and that is just as valuable.

Challenging and rewarding, the following year would be one that I am continually grateful for. Formed in response to Hurricane Florence, our Bass Connections project team explored how remote sensing technology can be applied to monitor coastal ecosystems facing sea level rise and intensifying hurricanes due to climate change.

After a semester of background reading and learning, I had the opportunity to spend the summer [2019] researching at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC. My team and I spent the majority of our days in a lab room named “The Cove.” Some days in The Cove felt incredibly fast. Other days felt admittedly slow as we waded through research papers and code, trying to refine our research questions. I often feared that I wouldn’t be able to contribute meaningfully. I was studying coastal resilience, but I was learning a bit about personal resilience as well.

Diego and Kendall.
Student team members Diego Chamarro and Kendall Jefferys during their summer at the Marine Lab

I began to find beauty in the fact that we could know so much about what happens on earth from satellites tracing lines in space above us – that wavelengths of light could tell us where plants were blooming and where they were dying. From satellite imagery of Eastern North Carolina, I could see cities encroaching, marshes receding and sand dunes eroding. Not only could I see these changes, I could measure them.

Nearing the end of the summer, I decided to focus my research on Nags Head Woods, a preserve bordered by two large sand dunes on the outer banks of North Carolina. I did field work in Nags Head and translated my research into an interactive StoryMap.

Nags Head Woods Preserve: An Application of Remote Sensing to Analyze Land Cover Change and Ecosystem Response (ArcGIS StoryMap by Kendall Jefferys)

As I write, it has been a year since my summer at the Marine Lab – I certainly miss it. This summer, I am interning with the Rachel Carson Council, where I am contributing to a new edition of Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind. I am also developing an Oceans and Coasts program for the organization. I truly do not think I would have this opportunity had it not been for Bass Connections. Now, as I reread Under the Sea-Wind, I am transported back to the coast of North Carolina through Rachel Carson’s writing.

Learn More