UNC researchers study the effects of hurricanes on the N.C. coast

North Carolina is attractive to hurricanes. One makes landfall in the Tar Heel state about every four years on average.

Researchers at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City say the terrain of the eastern part of the state makes North Carolina vulnerable to the storms’ effects. The low-lying coastal area is very close to sea level, so when a hurricane hits North Carolina the storm surge can easily wash over those areas and inundate large parts of the state.

In addition to the property damage and destruction these storms cause, they have devastating effects on the environment and ecosystems.

Institute researchers are investigating the impact of climate change on the storm outlook, the health and quality of coastal waterways and the state’s emergency response efforts. The videos below highlight some of their findings.

Rick Luettich, professor of marine sciences, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters, is internationally recognized for his work in storm surge and other coastal monitoring and modeling.

In his video, Luettich explains how he and his team at the Institute of Marine Sciences are serving North Carolina and providing expertize in marine issues to coastal communities and beyond.

Hans Paerl, Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences, developed FerryMon, the first ferry-borne water monitoring system in the United States.

The FerryMon program started after the 1999 hurricanes, Floyd, Dennis and Irene.

The ferries cross the Pamlico Sound 30 times a day, collecting water quality data the state needs for research, especially during a major storm event.

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Oyster reefs are important to the water quality in our oceans and estuaries. They are also important in breaking waves of a power hurricane before they hit the shores. These waves can actually hurt, break and destroy oyster reefs in the process.

Pete Peterson, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences, Biology and Ecology, believes the oyster reefs off North Carolinas shores are in serious trouble because little of the historical oyster reef is left — less than 1 percent — relative to more than 100 years ago.

Tony Rodriguez, associate professor of coastal geology at UNC's Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, studies the beach's morphology or shape before and after a hurricane with the help of a 3-D laser scanner.

See how his research helps us protect and repair our coasts after a major storm event, like a hurricane.

Rachel Noble, associate professor of marine biology at UNC's Institute of Marine Sciences, keeps the public informed about the potentially harmful bacteria in our waters after a major storm or hurricane.

Tracking the health of North Carolina's coast

  • Tony Rodriguez, associate professor of coastal geology, works with students on a beach near Morehead City to set up a Lidar laser imaging unit to map the beach. The image will be used to compare with post-storm images to determine damage and changes to the coastline.
  • Tony Rodriguez, left, works with students Ethan Theuerkauf, Robin Mattheus and Emily Timmons.
  • Steve Fegley, right, research associate professor in the Institute of Marine Sciences, works with student Michael Prafka to take samples on a beach near Morehead City.
  • Tony Rodriguez, front right, works with students Ethan Theuerkauf, Robin Mattheus and Emily Timmons.
  • Rachel Noble, associate professor of marine biology, takes water samples at a beach near Morehead City.
  • Rachel Noble examines water samples in her lab.
  • Rick Luettich, professor of marine sciences, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters, uses computer modeling to predict storm surge from hurricanes and the areas affected.
  • Charles “Pete” Peterson, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Marine Sciences, Biology and Ecology, examines a concrete jetty. Peterson studies the effects of hardening structures on the coastline.
  • In the engine room of the ferry M/V Floyd Lupton, students work with Hans Paerl, William R Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences, left, to change collection containers which analyze water samples collected as the ferry makes its run.The data is sent back via telemetry to computers on shore for analysis. The project is part of the FerryMon program.
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For more information, refer to the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences Web site, call (252) 726-6841 or e-mail ims@unc.edu.