The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $300K, three-year research grant to Northeastern University in July 2017 to develop best practices for tide gate operations in coastal marshes. Professor Mark Patterson, College of Science interdisciplinary with civil and environmental engineering, is leading the project with assistant professor Loretta A. Fernandez, and Brian Helmuth, professor of environmental science and public policy.
“Wetlands are critical to the protection of coastal infrastructure,” says Patterson. “Our research will establish engineering best practices to help communities effectively manage tide gate operations and reduce the risk of storm surges and fire while protecting ecosystem health.”
Under the NSF grant, the Northeastern team will work with local communities to investigate three diverse salt marsh environments in Massachusetts: a large urban coastal marsh, the Rumney Marsh; a smaller urban marsh in Marshfield that is used recreationally; and a “pristine” marsh in Plum Island that will serve as a control site.
Based on its data gathering and modeling—along with input collected in workshops with state and federal stakeholders—the team will develop decision support tools for operators, including a smartphone app to provide guidance on when and how much to open tide gates under various scenarios, and a companion website to serve as a resource for managers, the public and K-12 school programs. Because the marshes selected for the study are different in size and behavior, the decision support tools will be suitable for use in a variety of locations across the country.
Co-principal investigator Fernandez will look at the effects of tide gates on chemical pollutants in salt marshes. “Industrial toxins now present in almost all aquatic environments can accumulate and stick to the sediment moving in and out of the marsh, which has an impact on both plant life and fish species—and can potentially affect people when they consume the fish,” explains Fernandez.
Using engineering tools known as “passive samplers” will allow for measuring low concentrations of these toxins in the environment, according to Fernandez. “The technology enables us to collect more data than we could in the past using the same amount of time and effort. We’ll be able to learn more, for example, about how tide gate operation affects the transport of toxic chemicals in salt marshes and predict how bioavailable chemicals are to invertebrates and fish.”
The collected data will be fed into the smartphone app developed for operators to help manage both nutrient and toxin transport—and ultimately decisions to open or close tide gates.
“Our research addresses critical issues of environmental sustainability,” says Patterson, “where engineering intersects with making decisions about the environment, and this project is a perfect example of that [intersection].”