Water Institute Graduate Fellows Program: 2013 Cohort

Impacts of Sea-Level Change on Coastal Aquifers, Water Resources and Ecosystems

Average global sea level is projected to rise 0.3-1.9 meters by the end of the century, with dire consequences for the nearly 1 billion people who live along coasts globally, most just a few meters above current sea level. One of the most immediate impacts to coastal communities are changes in availability of freshwater for human use and coastal ecosystems such as estuaries.

The 2013 cohort of Water Institute Graduate Fellows (Fellows) is carrying out interdisciplinary research to improve understanding of potential impacts of sea-level change on coastal aquifers, water resources, and natural ecosystems. Eight Fellows, along with their faculty advisors, make up the core of this group. Several others – graduate students, a postdoctoral associate, faculty – subsequently joined, expanding the disciplinary range to include urban planning and coastal forests.

Fellows are interacting collaboratively across varied topics addressed by the cohort. Individual research topics range from studies of past sea-level variations; effects of sea level on freshwater discharge and salinization of aquifers; impacts on coastal ecosystems including flora, fauna, and microbes; availability of freshwater resources; impacts to drinking water supply and treatment; to chemical composition of discharging water to coastal oceans.

Elements of the Coastal WIGF program include:

Education – The WIGF program cultivates an educational experience that broadens the disciplinary focus of each Fellow’s research, blending experiential learning, academic course work, research, training and service. Each Fellow is taking a set of interdisciplinary core courses. A biweekly seminar involving Fellows and faculty focuses on development of integrative activities, both through course and field work as well as individual research programs and cross-disciplinary activities. Some Fellows are teaching undergraduate courses or laboratories as part of their educational training.

Fellows helped plan and then participated in fieldtrips to Puerto Morelos in Quintana Roo, Mexico and to Indian River Lagoon in Florida, U.S.A. These trips involved interdisciplinary field work to examine exchange of groundwater between coastal lagoons and aquifers, how this exchange impacts microbial communities and water quality, and controls of the lagoon hydrodynamics on the exchange. One Fellow is doing fieldwork in the Seychelles islands.

Research – Each Fellow has a disciplinary home in either Geological Sciences, Civil and Coastal Engineering, Soil and Water Sciences, Urban and Regional Planning, or the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Each Fellow is crafting a doctoral dissertation around a topic and disciplinary facet of interest to them while contributing to the cohort’s overall research theme of sea-level change and coastal aquifers. Research is being conducted in an intellectual environment of shared learning that fosters integrative thinking and cross-training in engineering and sciences. Each Fellow and faculty bring their disciplinary expertise to the cohort and is fully committed to developing an integrative, cross-disciplinary approach to problem solving.

The cohort collaboratively prepared a funding proposal to the National Science Foundation Coastal SEES program, and was awarded a $441,125 grant in 2013 for initial field and laboratory research. A subsequent NSF Coastal SEES proposal prepared and submitted (not awarded) by the cohort requested $1,999,442 to fund continued interdisciplinary research.

This WIGF program cohort is making significant progress. Fellows have presented preliminary research findings at over a dozen professional conferences. Several peer-reviewed papers are currently in preparation or review. One Fellow, Jackie Branyon, already graduated with a doctorate in December 2015 and was immediately employed with an international engineering consulting firm.

Service – This WIGF cohort is fostering ethical responsibility and civic involvement through outreach to others. To date Fellows have mentored 6 undergraduate students on x-ray diffraction techniques, PCR/QPCR techniques, organic carbon characterization techniques, sedimentary phosphorus analysis, legacy data compilation for a coral U/Th geochronology database, field vegetation surveys, porewater sampling, and vegetation decomposition rates. Fellows have participated in GeoGators, the public outreach program of the UF Geological Sciences Department, which brings hands-on activities and demonstrations to local elementary and middle schools. Fellows have participated in “Can You Dig It?”, a public-outreach geosciences event at the Florida Museum of Natural History. One Fellow has given talks and led paddling and snorkeling trips for those interested saltwater intrusion issues.