Drowning coasts: Tracking 400 Years of Humanity in the Sedimentary Record

I have always been obsessed with land. From crawling around construction sites with my grandfather as a child, to discussing Locke’s theories on property in my Modern Political Theory class, land, both physical and philosophical, captures my imagination in many ways. While I once believed I had a calling as a land-use lawyer or a real estate broker, I now know I am a physical geographer at heart, with majors in geology and government.

This summer I will study human influences on coastal systems, the environment, and climate. If, for example, scientists can understand how humans impact sediment supplies to barrier islands — buffers between the coastal ocean and mainland communities and infrastructure — we can better inform environmental policy and resource management. Policy, both legislative and bureaucratic, should be well informed by science to best protect communities and encourage adaptation in a time of accelerated sea-level rise and climate change.

Specifically, this research project involves coring a tidal flat in Massachusetts to better understand the recent (last 400 years) of sediment supply to the coastlines. We know that coastal systems, including marshes, barrier islands, and tidal flats, are influenced by human activities such as urbanization, deforestation, damming of rivers, quarrying, agricultural growth, land reclamation, mining, and variations in impermeable surfaces. Lower sedimentation rates threaten the long-term stability of barrier islands and their backbarrier systems of tidal flats and marshes. These barriers and marshes are vital to coastal ecosystems and communities, providing ecosystems services like carbon sequestration and a natural barrier from the direct impact of coastal storms, among others. According to NOAA, coastal watershed communities account for 52% (163.8 million) of the total population of the United States and are among the most densely populated in the nation. This study aims to capture changes in the rate and nature of fine sediment exported from a river in New England during the period of recent human occupation (~400 years).