Category Archives: Coastal Studies Institute

Exploring nightscape resources of the Outer Albemarle Peninsula

Stanley R. Riggs is an internationally recognized coastal geologist at East Carolina University, and serves as chairman of the N.C. Land of Water program. Below, he describes a project funded by a Community Collaborative Research Grant supported by North Carolina Sea Grant, in partnership with the William R. Kenan Jr. Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science, and North Carolina Space Grant.

The Milky Way.

The Milky Way. (Photo by John McCord/CSI)

The night skies within North Carolina’s Outer Albemarle Peninsula represent the largest area of public lands — over 485,134 acres, or 758 square miles — with the darkest skies along the entire U.S. Atlantic coastal system between Boston and Miami.

This unique and complex system of nocturnal environments and associated night skies rotate from the brilliant, big sky of the full moons to the inky black skies of the new moons that open the sky to a dazzling universe.

A significant seasonal variation is superimposed upon the skies’ vastness that ranges between these two extremes. Cold, crisp winter nights are dominated by the overwhelming sounds of flocks of winter waterfowl, including tundra swans and snow geese by the tens of thousands, moving from refuge lakes to farm fields, along with lonesome hoots of owls on evening hunts, howls of roaming coyote packs, and occasionally the rare red wolf.

Summer nights are hot, humid and dominated with a cacophony of insects and frogs, along with massive light and sound displays derived from the outlines of perfect thunderheads that move over the peninsula. And, of course, there is a never ending parade of morning sunrises and evening sunsets that daily provide new mosaics of sky magic.

The Outer Albemarle Peninsula, known as the OAP, has an incredible nightscape resource for the following reasons:

  1. The vast area of public wetlands is surrounded by the expansive estuarine system, all of which have minimal human activity.
  2. The “Big Night Sky” presents an ideal astronomical wonderland that is generally becoming an endangered environment in the east due to ever increasing light pollution.
  3. The 360 degree-horizon vistas provide incredible views of sun and moon rises and sets; thunderheads and dramatic lightning shows; and glorious zenith and structure of the Milky Way.
  4. As noted above, the hot, humid drone of the spring to fall nocturnal soundscape of insects and amphibians, moves into frigid winter nights with dramatic cacophony of waterfowl, owls, and wolves.
Reide Corbett speaks with East Carolina University Board of Trustees members during a meeting at the Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo, N.C.

Reide Corbett speaks with ECU Board of Trustees members during a meeting at the Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo, N.C. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

In a quest to better understand the nocturnal environment and dark skies of the region, North Carolina Land of Water (NC LOW) and A Time For Science (ATFS) designed a study to map and characterize the landscapes, soundscapes, and viewscapes of the OAP across four eastern N.C. counties. As NC LOW’s coastal and marine geologist, I am the lead investigator in this Nightscape resource project.

Other partners include: Karen Clough, community outreach coordinator for NC LOW; Emily Jarvis, executive director of ATFS; and Brian Baker, astronomer with ATFS. The project has a working partnership with Reide Corbett, an oceanographer and executive director of ECU’s Coastal Studies Institute, known as CSI.

Also, three groups of local volunteers constitute the field mapping teams obtaining nighttime observations in Tyrrell, Washington and mainland Hyde-Dare counties. The project also has developed working partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teams at Alligator River, Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, and Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuges, along with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and N.C. State Parks.

NC LOW and ATFS are nongovernmental organizations involved in regional coastal research and science education initiatives in the northeastern North Carolina. Their missions include to:

  1. contribute to scientific understanding of the dynamic coastal system;
  2. delineate potential sustainable eco-tourism opportunities; and
  3. carry out regional K-12 and public science education programs in the region. All of their programs are framed around the unique natural resources and rich cultural history that reflect our state’s world-class coastal system enhance the quality of life of residents.
Color topography shows the North Carolina Land of Water in northeastern North Carolina’s coastal system — east of the red dashed line. The Outer Albemarle Peninsula study outlined in a black hexagon includes major portions of Washington, all of Tyrrell, and mainland Hyde and Dare counties.

Color topography shows the North Carolina Land of Water in northeastern North Carolina’s coastal system — east of the red dashed line. The Outer Albemarle Peninsula study outlined in a black hexagon includes major portions of Washington, all of Tyrrell, and mainland Hyde and Dare counties. (Map by Stanley Riggs)

Our Nightscape survey teams are comprised of scientists, educators and students that live and work in the coastal region. From June through December 2018, the teams went to their respective counties on 13 new- and full-moon nights. Combined, they tallied 161 visits to 62 sites. Broken down by county, the Nightscape data collections were: Mainland Dare: 54 visits to 14 sites; Mainland Hyde: 37 visits to 18 sites; Tyrrell: 40 visits to 13 sites; and Washington: 30 visits to 17 sites.

In addition to describing the surrounding environment, accessibility and apparent urban noise and light pollution at each site through the four seasons, researchers measure quality of the sky darkness, ambient sound and meteorological parameters.

Data from these surveys will be used to quantify and map the general nightscapes and light pollution in the OAP. This knowledge will help shape plans to protect our unique Nightscape resource, to responsibly incorporate the resource into ongoing ecotourism programs, and potentially to enable the peninsula to earn regional designation as an “International Dark Sky Place.” The Dark Sky Place title — and accompanying backing of the International Dark Sky Association — would enhance the visibility of the regional dark sky resource and foster ecotourism and sustainable economic activity in the region.

Astronomer Brian Baker (pictured) will participate in the Nightscape project’s first free public Star Party on Feb. 5 at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.

Astronomer Brian Baker (pictured) will participate in the Nightscape project’s first free public Star Party on Feb. 5 at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. (Photo by A Time for Science)

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, NC LOW, ATFS and CSI will host the first of three public Star Parties sponsored by the Nightscape project. The event will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The event is open and free to the public. The program will be led by several astronomers and will feature night-sky programs in a portable planetarium (regardless of the weather) along with viewing the night sky with a series of telescopes, if it is not overcast.

For more details on the Feb. 5 event, contact John McCord from CSI at 252-475-4550, or read a CSI story here.

Future programs as part of the Nightscape project will be held in Bertie County at the end of February to early March, and also in Tyrrell in April. Watch for details on those events.

Also, North Carolina Space Grant and partners across the state will be hosting a series of Star Parties as part of the North Carolina Science Festival in April. For more information on those events, go online to


by Stanley Riggs, Distinguished Professor of Geology, Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences

Coastal Studies Institute to host open house

The Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) will host an open house from 1-4 p.m. on Jan. 20 at its campus in Wanchese. The public is welcomed and encouraged to attend this free event.

Attendees will be able to tour the campus and facilities, learn about current research and education programs, take part in family-friendly activities, and interact with CSI faculty and staff. The LEED gold certified CSI Campus is located at 850 N.C. 345 Highway, approximately one mile from the U.S. 64 and N.C. 345 intersection.

A northeast view of the research and education building located on the CSI campus.

A northeast view of the research and education building located on the CSI campus. (contributed photo)

CSI is an interdisciplinary research and education institute focusing on place-based research in five main program areas. Research programs include coastal engineering and renewable ocean energy, coastal processes, estuarine ecology and human health, maritime heritage, and public policy and coastal sustainability.

CSI is a multi-institutional campus administered by East Carolina University in partnership with UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, UNC Wilmington and Elizabeth City State University. The institute’s mission is to undertake research, offer educational opportunities, provide community outreach programs and enhance communication among those concerned with the unique history, culture and environment of the maritime counties of North Carolina.


-by Jules Norwood, ECU News Services

Researchers awarded $1.5 million grant to investigate the future of coastal communities

Andy Keeler, professor of economics at East Carolina University and program head for public policy and coastal sustainability at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute, is part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers investigating how public policies affect both economic decisions and the coastal environment.

Keeler is one of the researchers funded by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to Dylan McNamara, associate professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography at UNC Wilmington.

McNamara will lead a group — from geomorphologists to economists — from seven universities to address the interactions of natural forces, economic decisions and public policies to determine how the environment and patterns of human settlement react to rising seas and related coastline changes. The NSF grant will fund the research for four years. The project is underway.

“Our team is excited to receive this grant as these resources will allow us to work together as a coherent multidisciplinary team, which is fundamentally necessary to understand the human-occupied coastline system,” said McNamara.

Researchers from UNCW, Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Georgia, The Ohio State University, East Carolina University and the University of Colorado will create and investigate computer modeled coastal communities similar to those found along U.S. East and Gulf Coast barrier islands.

“We are heading into a critical phase where coastal communities will have to make important decisions about how they are going to adapt to the future,” McNamara said. “We are hoping we can inform some of that policy. The stakes are high for communities along every coastline as the recent storm tragedies highlight. Our goal is to understand the complex dynamics at play along human-occupied coastlines. So rather than reactively dealing with a disaster event, we aim to proactively understand the dynamics that so often lead to disaster.”

Keeler said one of the goals of the project is to better understand the factors at play in defending the coastline versus retreating from it.

“What we’re trying to do is use these example communities and some sophisticated modeling systems to see how different policies and outcomes affect that tipping point,” he said. “My particular interest is in the way we model infrastructure and public policy, and how they influence people’s choices.”

The results of the team’s research will provide insight into how real estate markets respond to complex changes in environmental conditions, public policies, scientific knowledge, and individual attitudes and values.


Contact: John McCord,

White to step aside as Coastal Studies Institute director

Dr. Nancy White, founding executive director of the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute, has announced that she will step aside from that role, effective June 30, 2017.

White said that it was her goal to bring CSI to a position of sustainability. With the help of a dedicated board of directors, collaborative partnerships and community support, she said she feels that goal has been accomplished, and that the time is right to bring in a leader with new ideas and energy. 

White will continue to work with CSI as an East Carolina University principal research scholar, reporting to provost Dr. Ron Mitchelson.

Nancy White (photo by Cliff Hollis)

Nancy White (photo by Cliff Hollis)

“I have always emphasized finding and hiring really good people and then doing my best to empower their ability to work,” White said. “People are the core strength of any organization, and we have some of the best people I have ever worked with here. … The people who came to start CSI are pioneers and have given all they have to make CSI what it is and where it is today. I am proud of having had the privilege of working with them.” 

ECU is the administrative campus for CSI, which was founded in 2003 and includes member institutions Elizabeth City State University, N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Wilmington, as well as ECU. The CSI campus is located on Roanoke Island in Wanchese.

“Nancy White was the founding executive director of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute in 2003, and she has been a champion for coastal science and issues since that time,” Mitchelson said. “She has brought tremendous passion and expertise to that role, and her devotion to the region has yielded significant place-based research and educational opportunities.”

Mike Kelly, member and former chair of the CSI Board of Directors, said White played an invaluable role in transforming the vision for CSI into a reality and juggling a wide range of responsibilities along the way.

“We’re somewhat regretful that she’s leaving, but we’re glad that she’ll be here to pass on her knowledge so that the next person can build on the foundation she has laid down,” he said. 

A search committee will be appointed to interview and assess applicants for White’s successor as executive director, who will assume those duties on July 1, 2017.

CSI Foundation chair Bill Massey said White has been an outstanding advocate for CSI and its role in the community, focusing on science while balancing environmental and economic interests. 

“Her role has been not to divide and put stakes in the ground, but to help create a greater understanding of how the science we undertake can help to inform public policy,” he said. 

“ECU has embraced the multi-campus construct and has empowered it in ways that hadn’t been possible until it took on the leadership role,” said White. “Going forward, because of ECU’s leadership, CSI’s coastal programs and research will have impact potential of national merit. I can’t wait to see how it grows.”

–Jules Norwood