Shifting sands

On an island of time and tide where a town once stood, U.Va. researchers study erosion and rebirth.

By Fariss Samarrai

At 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, autumn sport fishermen and winter waterfowl hunters. Fish and game were wildly abundant. Sport hunters shot hundreds of birds per day. Commercial hunters and trappers bagged thousands — ducks and geese for meat, 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. Life for an islander was good, even if the swarms of mosquitoes were thick enough to be called “Hog Island dust.”

About 250 permanent residents of Broadwater earned their living from the thriving tourist industry, and by fishing the bays and ocean and surrounding marshes. They worked cattle too on the long island’s narrow grasslands. There were more than 80 buildings on the island — houses, barns, hotels, fish houses, a lighthouse.

Today, none remain.

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 daily 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.

Don’t build on shifting sands

“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.”

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. This is vintage wild sea coast — a good place for day visitors to stroll or to fish the miles of undeveloped beaches and marshlands.

Hog Island also is 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 LTER’s around the nation conducting long-term environmental studies. The Virginia project is the only LTER investigating barrier island change.

“This 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.

“The Virginia barrier islands are made up of the finest-grain sand on the East Coast,” Hayden says. “This is an extremely fine-grained quartz that likely washed down from the Appalachian mountains back when the Chesapeake Bay was primarily a river, and the mouth of that river was where the Eastern Shore barrier islands now lie.”

An oscillating shoreline

Hayden says this fine sand, which has been roiled by thousands of years of flowing water, 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.

“Hog Island oscillates in shape over the course of about 200 years,” Hayden says. “When the town of Broadwater was founded, the island was narrow to the north and about two miles wide on the south side where the town was located. Today, the island is only a quarter of a mile wide on the south end and a mile and a half wide on the north side. If you went looking for where Broadwater was, you’d have to look in the sea.”

Using core samples from the island, aerial photographs and old nautical charts, researchers have developed a computerized simulation of Hog Island change over the past 300 years. The island’s oscillation appears almost as fluid as the water that shapes it.

Help for coastal residents

Understanding 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 into 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.

“The 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 who 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.”

Much change has occurred on these islands and in the surrounding waters since colonial days. Several waterfowl and shorebird populations were nearly wiped out by early hunters and trappers. Oysters, which once were the foundation of the fisheries industry, exist today only on isolated sections of the back bays. Large stretches of bay bottom, which once were covered with extensive beds of seagrass, now lie muddy and barren, resulting in reduced fish and shellfish populations.

But there has been recovery as well. Many bird species are returning to the islands and are growing in population. Seagrasses are being reestablished in some bay areas, and fish, including the prized stripped bass, are becoming increasingly abundant.

“We have several experiments underway 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 (Environmental Sciences MS ’79, PhD ’88), a research scientist who has been studying small mammal populations on Hog Island since his U.Va. graduate school days. “We are trying to understand the processes of change, what role humans are playing in that change and what part is natural. We want to understand the implications.

“By doing long-term research we are able to establish time frames for the events we see occurring,” Porter says. “By developing this chronology, we are able to put observations in context and better understand the bigger picture. We are no longer taking mere glimpses of nature. We are seeking answers to questions that would not be possible without long-term funding and long-term research commitment.”

Anheuser-Busch Foundation pledges $1.2 Million to establish Coastal Research Center

The Anheuser-Busch Foundation has donated $1.2 million to the Department of Environmental Sciences to establish the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center. The Anheuser-Busch gift will help the department build a new $2.5 million state-of-the-art facility to enhance its current research capabilities on the Eastern Shore.

The present research facility is in an aging farm house a few miles inland. The new facility will be built on the shore at the harbor in Oyster, Va.

“Change in coastal environments has accelerated in recent decades due to human factors,” says James Galloway, chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences. “The establishment of the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center will allow our department to build on 30 years of work on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and to increasingly exercise leadership in environmental research in the coastal zone. The site will be a magnet for new science programs and will increase our overall competitiveness in seeking new research funds.”

The new research facility will include living accommodations for staff and visiting researchers and students. Several laboratories will support the ongoing field work, including a computer lab, hydrology lab, ecology lab, a sample processing lab for sediments, a microbiology lab, a chemistry lab and an electronics lab. The facility also will include an education center and conference areas, office space and kitchen and dining facilities.

The facility is the base for the National Science Foundation’s Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research project. NSF provides more than $700,000 per year to U.Va. scientists for research at the LTER.

“We have been very successful over the years at winning grants for our long-term coastal research,” says Bruce Hayden, lead investigator at the LTER. “With this gift we can now build a first-class coastal research facility to help us learn more about how our environment works. Long-term research requires a long-term commitment from organizations that care about the environment. Anheuser-Busch has had a long tradition of contributing to environmental studies and conservation efforts. We are about to build a facility that will draw top researchers from around the Commonwealth and the world to Virginia’s shores.”