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

Student Opportunities

All students will get first-hand research experience, including developing research questions and planning, data collection and analysis and the discussion and reporting of results. Students will conduct weekly writing exercises that will eventually contribute to a publication with their authorship. The weekly presentations will help students critically evaluate and discuss scientific and regulatory literature. As a mentor, the graduate student will build leadership and team management skills.

The graduate and undergraduate students will spend the initial summer weeks training to use the necessary aircraft, sensors and software packages under the tutelage of the postdoctoral associate and the lab technician.

Weekly meetings will involve progress reporting and planning. Team members will take turns presenting on relevant pieces of literature, learning UAS best practices or teaching and learning a new spatial analysis tool.

Team leaders seek to engage one graduate student (business and environment, coastal environmental management, ecosystem science and conservation, environmental economics and policy, global environmental change, shoreline management policy, law) who will serve as project manager and mentor, one undergraduate student (engineering) and one technician (an engineer who specializes in UAS construction and application who will work with the team to create the best UAS setup for the project).

Team members will have the opportunity to travel to study sites in North Carolina and to Belize to conduct surveys at the WWF mangrove study site.

Team progress will be evaluated by setting specific goals for each team member for the timeline of the project. These milestones will include but are not limited to initial training completion, interfacing with each partner, living shoreline policy analysis, data collection, data processing and publication preparation. Progress will be evaluated on a weekly basis at team meetings.


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


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

Faculty/Staff Team Members

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
Raquel Bensadoun, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
Kelly Dobroski, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management

Undergraduate Team Members

Alexandra DiGiacomo
Virginia Pan

Community Team Members

Nadia Bood, World Wildlife Fund-Guatemala/Mesoamerica
Carolyn Currin, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)
Anne Deaton, NC Division of Marine Fisheries
Daniel Govoni, NC Division of Coastal Management
Shaun Martin, World Wildlife Fund*
Ninel Montecinos, World Wildlife Fund, Mexico
Brandon Pucket, North Carolina Coastal Reserves/National Estuarine Research Reserves
Aurelie Shapiro, World Wildlife Fund, Germany
Lexia Weaver, NC Coastal Federation

* denotes team leader


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