Saving the New Jersey Coastline from Storm Damage

Penn
Penn
Aug 17, 2016 · 3 min read

By Katherine Unger Baillie
Video and photos by Alex Schein

Bianca Reo Charbonneau was surprised when, in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, she found few researchers intensively studying Jersey coast dunes and the plants that hold them together. Working at northern New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park, the third-year doctoral candidate in Penn’s Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences set out to fill in the knowledge gaps. Her initial research examined how different plant species and various types of fencing contributed to erosion-prevention and dune regrowth post-storm.

Already her findings are helping steer land managers toward better-informed strategies for preserving and restoring dunes so they can help buffer the coast from storm damage.

For her doctoral work, Charbonneau is paying special attention to the effect of storms on dunes. After every major storm, she drives two hours from Philadelphia to Island Beach to assess the impact of the water and winds.

Bianca Reo Charbonneau uses a GPS to measure and document every nuance of the dunes.

Bianca Reo Charbonneau is using a GPS to measure and document every nuance of the dunes.

“I literally walk the crest of the dunes with a GPS and take a measurement each step,” she says. “It’s very physically demanding because I’m walking up to 10 miles a day in the sand. My Achilles [tendons] aren’t happy after longer field days.”

Charbonneau is also continuing to focus on the hardy dune grasses that act like nets to hold the sand in place. For example, she is curious to find out whether the presence of mycorrhizal fungi influences how plants are able to hold on or recover in the aftermath of storms.

With support from the Department of Defense, Charbonneau will also be building an eight-foot high, 32-foot long wind tunnel to experimentally test the effect of different plants — specifically their shapes — on the establishment of dunes after storms.

Dunes can be a controversial topic among coastal communities because they block beachfront property views and opinions vary on best management practices. As a result, she is also mentoring a high school student to conduct social science research to probe people’s attitudes toward the dunes, such as whether they understand why it is important to avoid walking on them.

In her research, Charbonneau is focusing on the hardy dune grasses that act like nets to hold the sand in place.

With her work, Charbonneau is aiming to provide land managers with concrete information to help them rebuild dunes faster and stronger in the wake of storms. As a side benefit, she may also shift public perception.

“I’m hoping that just by being able to document, with hard numbers and visually, how powerful these storms are, people will start to realize that living in certain areas of the coast is not a long-term solution,” she says.

To follow the progress of Charbonneau’s work and learn more about her research, visit her website.

Katherine Unger Baillie is a science news officer at Penn’s Office of University Communications.

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