The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has awarded a team of researchers from Boston College’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences a four-year, $6.2-million grant to study water quality and sediment transport in watersheds and along coastlines of the United States, U.S. Senator Edward Markey announced at a campus event on March 28.
The project establishes a collaboration between the University and the Engineer Research and Development Center of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a 220-year-old agency that delivers vital public and military engineering services to strengthen national security, support economic growth, and reduce risks from disasters.
“The oceans are warming dramatically, and all the evidence points towards catastrophic results,” said Sen. Markey during the visit. “I’m still very optimistic that we can get something done this year to increase the flow of funding necessary to get the science right. We’ll just keep working to get the funding to make sure that this research continues.”
“As a department, we have embraced this intentionally broad theme of water as a department identity for several years now. We have been building strength in areas such as geochemistry, computational geophysics, and in field analysis. That allowed us to develop this proposal for the Army Corps of Engineers and bring everything together in a multi-year research program.””
Professor Ethan Baxter, chair of Earth and Environmental Sciences and a lead investigator on the project, said the award reflects expanded expertise and capacity in the department, opportunities created by its new Ph.D. program, as well as its focus on earth systems, particularly the essential role on Earth and in societies of water and its quality.
“As a department, we have embraced this intentionally broad theme of water as a department identity for several years now,” said Baxter. “We have been building strength in areas such as geochemistry, computational geophysics and in field analysis. That allowed us to develop this proposal for the Army Corps of Engineers and bring everything together in a multi-year research program.”
The project wll be affiliated with the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, where it will be an integral component of the new Center for Integrated Environmental Systems Research, according to Baxter and Schiller Institute Director Laura J. Steinberg.
Specifically, the project will monitor and simulate the evolution of coastlines, rivers, and related habitats in response to natural and human forced events such as deglaciation, sea-level rise, climate change, nutrient runoff, sediment placement operations, and the construction of dams, levees and other structures. Sedimentological, geophysical, and geochemical analyses will be integrated into numerical models designed to understand the evolution of these systems including coastal erosion, subsidence, and water quality, according to Baxter.
The team will establish a network of sensors to monitor conditions and water quality in lakes, rivers, estuaries, and coastlines in study areas that include New England, the Gulf Coast region, and the Seven Mile Island Innovation Laboratory in New Jersey.
The research will include compiling field measurements of sediment dynamics and river morphology complemented by high resolution LIDAR aerial imaging and other remote-sensing data to chart the long-term evolution of natural and engineered waterways, according to Baxter, joined on the project by his department colleagues, Professors Noah Snyder, John Ebel, Mark Behn, and Gail Kineke, and Assistant Professors Hilary Palevsky and Xingchen “Tony” Wang.
U.S. Senator Edward Markey (far right) announced the grant at a campus event on March 28. Shown above, l-r: Earth and Environmental Sciences doctoral student Meg Yoder; master's student Jose Cuevas; Boston College President William P. Leahy, S.J.: postdoctoral scholar Kristen Fogaren; Assistant Professor Hilary Palevsky; and Professor and Chair Ethan Baxter. (Caitlin Cunningham)
Real-time measurements of dissolved oxygen, nutrient fluxes, and carbon chemistry using sensors and/or autonomous vehicles will provide water quality monitoring. Laboratory geochemical analyses of sediments and biological archives, such as coral skeletons, will be used to establish historical records of evolving sediment sources, nutrient fluxes, and water quality. The project will also connect with the geophysical expertise at the University’s Weston Observatory to assess the condition of levees and other engineered structures.
“With its responsibilities for managing many of the nation’s riverways and harbors, the Corps deals every day with the challenge of moving sediment from places where it is not desired, such as reservoirs and navigation channels, to where it is needed, such as coastal habitats and infrastructure being lost to sea-level rise,” said Snyder, the project’s co-lead investigator. “Our team is eager to work with agency scientists and engineers to help understand this complex problem.”
Baxter said there will be an interplay between data collection in the field and computational modeling of historical data, as well as future scenarios.
“The partnership with the Corps is exciting,” said Baxter. “They have existing models they have been honing for decades in areas such as the evolution of water quality, sediment transport in coastlines and river systems, and the stability of coastlines and rivers. A big part initially is collecting data to assess and refine existing models. In addition, on the geophysical modeling side, the partnership will create new models that may introduce new factors.”In addition to establishing the network of environmental sensing equipment, the grant will help provide new and upgraded analytical technologies on campus, Baxter said. The grant will fund at least six graduate students, mostly students in the department’s new Ph.D. program, three post-doctoral researchers and six undergraduate researchers.
“The funding for student and post-doctoral researchers is significant,” said Baxter. “This grant award could not have happened without the launch of our new Ph.D. program. The decision to launch the program and the University’s support for it are already making great things happen.”
Researchers will publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, as well as share with fellow researchers, government scientists, and others during an annual research conference at the Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center headquarters in Vicksburg, MS. The announcement coincided with a two-day workshop at BC where University and ERDC project teams presented preliminary research conducted through the partnership.
Ed Hayward |University Communications | March 2022