Through focused research themes— the dynamic land/sea margin, natural and anthropogenic threats to the coastal environment, and the development of tools and technologies for coastal research — the Coastal Ocean Institute seeks to illuminate the critical issues facing the coastal/ocean interface so that conservationists, policymakers and the general public can make informed decisions about the use of this vast natural resource.
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The Dynamic Land/Sea Margin

Understanding beaches and the adjacent coastal ocean is critical; more than half of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of a coast, as do billions more around the world. Entire coastal communities depend on a tenuous relationship to the sea for their sustenance and their livelihood because this region is abundant with life. Impacts here are felt throughout the ocean food chain and the global economic markets.

For decades, WHOI scientists have examined the biological, physical, geological and chemical processes at work where air, sea, and land meet. They study topics as diverse as the relationship between salt- and fresh-water systems, processes affecting change on the shoreline (waves, tides, currents, weather patterns, sediment transport and more) and on the continental shelf, and the physical and biogeochemical dynamics of rivers, estuaries and deltas. By working to comprehend and predict how shorelines will change from day to day and year to year, they can help coastal policymakers and managers understand how the movement of water affects the evolution of coastlines, the safety of beachgoers and the dispersal of runoff and pollutants and the many other coastal issues.

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The devasting effects of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. (Associated Press)

Natural and Anthropogenic Threats to the Coastal Environment

Estuarine and coastal processes—physical, chemical or biological—are especially complex due in large part to the susceptibility of adjacent waters to changes forced by adjacent marine, terrestrial and atmospheric systems. At the same time, those coastal waters are most impacted by society's commercial, recreational and residential activities. Understanding threats to the coastal environment is key to effective long-term coastal management.

COI funding has helped lead the way in understanding how the coasts are impacted by: natural hazards, such as hurricanes, other severe weather events, tsunamis and flooding, sea-level changes, harmful algal blooms and introductions and spreading of aquatic nuisance species shoreline change, coastal erosion, habitat destruction, and the effects of human development and shore protection efforts natural resource uses and management, such as groundwater, renewable energy, fisheries and aquaculture, recreation and minerals pollution sources, modes of transport and fate coastal carbon cycling/ocean acidification 

In addition, the Institute has funded significant outreach aimed at educating the general public about these threats and how individuals can protect themselves and improve their communities. Recent examples include interactive Web sites on tsunami survival and beach closures, completed with regional and international partners.

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Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) being tested at the WHOI dock. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Insitution)

The Development of Tools and Technologies for Coastal Research

WHOI scientists study everything from the atmosphere to the ocean floor, and each research question to be answered requires its own specially-designed instruments and sensors. The Coastal Ocean Institute has a strong commitment to funding and nurturing leading-edge technology. Through the development of new sensors, instruments, vehicles and modeling tools we seek to move the field forward by enabling longer deployments, lower costs and the collection of more robust data.

For example, COI is working in collaboration with scientists around the world to develop a network of river observatories that will employ new in situ sensors to monitor the ways in which these delicate watersheds interact with rainwater to influence river water chemistry and deliver dissolved matter and sediment to the coast. In the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory, COI is deploying new radar systems that will change the way scientists measure circulation dynamics of the inner continental shelf. And Chris Scholin, an MIT-WHOI Joint Program alumnus who worked with former COI Director Don Anderson, developed the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), a moored instrument that can continuously monitor coastal waters for evidence of harmful algal blooms and transmit data in real time to scientists ashore.

Technologies like these, born at WHOI, improve our ability to measure, monitor, and analyze the fundamental processes shaping the coastal region, and revolutionize the way scientists approach and ultimately understand challenging coastal issues.