Developing Rapid, Cost-effective Methods for Evaluating Coastal Biodiversity and Resilience (2018-2019)


Coastal habitats such as oyster reefs, salt marshes, seagrass and mangroves are essential for resilient communities, but under threat from sea-level rise and acute anthropogenic disturbance. Our understanding of coastal ecosystem response to these impacts is limited. As a society, our traditional reaction to encroaching seas is to modify the shoreline through the use of hardened structures like bulkheads and revetments.

Only recently have we begun considering adopting the more natural living shoreline, which involves intertidal vegetation plantings sometimes coupled with oyster reefs as breakwaters. However, one of the largest hurdles is the dearth of knowledge of living shorelines’ resilience and the services restored shorelines provide.

Current methods for obtaining population and community metrics to assess habitat health in both natural and restored areas are generally restricted in scope, often destructive to the habitat and costly in time and effort. Novel methods using drone-based remote sensing would benefit international, national and regional organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental, that are actively engaged in coastal management.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project team will work with governmental and nongovernmental organizations to create helpful tools for conservation practices. Initial research will expand on ongoing work to establish the best sensors (targeted spectral bands) that are most useful for delineating shoreline and estuarine habitats in North Carolina, which include salt marsh, oyster reef and seagrass. The team will outfit small unoccupied aerial systems (or unmanned aerial systems [UAS]) with survey-grade, multispectral (and high-resolution optical sensors. Modern software packages for drone imagery processing are proving effective at creating accurate digital surface models, which when coupled with the spectral mosaics will help further delineate habitats.

Team members will establish what population metrics can be extracted from drone photography beyond aerial extent and elevations of the habitats. Advanced GIS processing will explore each of the spectral bands to determine differences within each habitat. Ground-truthing using established ecological monitoring methodology and high-precision real-time kinematic GPS will allow the team to identify which classification tools most accurately define differences within each habitat to address specific management goals. This will provide a field technique and software workflow to process drone-collected spatial data and extract ecosystem health and resilience metrics. 

Once the methodology is refined, the project team will test these techniques along mangrove shorelines, in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund. After obtaining permission to use UAS by the Belize government, the team will travel to Belize with the necessary aircraft systems and sensors to image mangrove shorelines.

Anticipated Outcomes

Publication in a peer-reviewed journal; foundation for future research and grants to explore using drones to monitor and evaluate ecosystem services provided by coastal habitats, with additional interest in filling knowledge gaps surrounding living shorelines


Summer 2018 – Spring 2019  

  • Summer 2018: Research begins, local data collection completed, data processing begins 
  • Fall 2018: Data processing completed; work with WWF to schedule the best time for surveying mangrove study areas, which may occur during the fall or spring semesters
  • Spring 2019: Survey mangrove study areas

This Team in the News

Donor Support Spurs Interdisciplinary Research on Pressing Global Challenges

See related team, Developing Rapid Remote Assessments of Oyster Reef Health and Biodiversity (2019-2020).

Coastal scenes

Team Leaders

  • David Johnston, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Justin Ridge, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Stephen Roady, Duke Law

/graduate Team Members

  • Claire Atkins-Davis, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Kelly Dobroski, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Alexandra DiGiacomo, Biology (BS)
  • Virginia Pan, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE)

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Nadia Bood, World Wildlife Fund-Guatemala/Mesoamerica
  • Carolyn Currin, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Denise Garcia, Southern Environmental Association, Belize
  • Daniel Govoni, North Carolina Division of Coastal Management
  • Celia Mahung, Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, Belize
  • Shaun Martin, World Wildlife Fund
  • Ryan Moore, Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, Belize
  • Arreini Palacio Morgan, Southern Environmental Association, Belize
  • Roberto Pott, World Wildlife Fund Belize
  • Brandon Puckett, North Carolina Division of Coastal Management
  • Leomir Santoya, Sarteneja Alliance for Conservation and Development, Belize
  • Aurelie Shapiro, World Wildlife Fund, Germany
  • Joel Verde, Sarteneja Alliance for Conservation and Development, Belize