Effective communication may be the key to improving the health of the coastal barrier islands, one of the most treasured ecosystems in the world.

“Getting this kind of information to the public is difficult,” said Biology Babcock Professor and CEES Associate Director Bill Smith.  “These are tough problems related to how humans are using the natural environment and how they are impacting it permanently,”

That’s why Smith is so passionate about his latest project, the Coastal Barrier Island Network.  “It’s a complicated communication problem.  One of the emphases of our grant is to help with that.”

Started in 2008, CBIN is the result of a five-year $486,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Smith heads the project along with Rusty Feagin (Texas A&M) and Nancy Jackson (New Jersey Institute of Technology).  CBIN’s goal is to determine the best ways to manage barrier island ecosystems.  The islands are all over the world, but notably up and down North America’s eastern coast.  Because of their connectivity to the ocean and inland water systems, coastal barrier islands are some of the most productive and economically important ecosystems in the world.

“These are critical ecological habitats where ecosystem services and the commercial value to man is paramount,” said Smith.  Despite being some of the most prized real estate in the country, these islands are also vital to the seafood industry.  Because so many groups have come to rely on the health of the coastal barrier islands, CBIN brings together professionals and scientists from a variety of backgrounds, including ecologists, biologist, hydrologists, geologists, sociologists, and economists.

Improving the health of the ecosystems also demands natural solutions.

“Are there ways to use natural vegetation which can act to stabilizes the islands so that storms or erosion don’t have as serious  or lasting  impacts?,” he said. “The vegetation at least can slow it down erosion as well as enhance recovery.”

Smith’s botany expertise is a key part to studying barrier islands.

“We want to synthesize past and present research efforts,” said Smith. “We’re trying to address the current knowledge about barrier island science, along with the difficult problem of communicating science to the public.  This challenge must involve scientists and regulatory agencies from county commissioners, to the corps of engineers, and all the way up to the federal level.

CBIN is unique in its approach, not only in synergizing experts from various disciplines, but also in finding solutions that work both for anthropogenic development and the natural environment.

“We’re not trying to kick everyone off the island. Our approach is sometimes called the urbanized ecosystem approach,” said Smith. “The concept is that we can maintain ecosystems and still have human development; barrier islands could serve as a model system for this urbanized ecosystem approach.”

CBIN holds various workshops around the country, many of them after natural disasters. The group took a closer look at the barrier island impact in Galveston after Hurricane Ike in 2009. The storm was the third-most destructive in US history. This summer they are heading up a workshop on northeastern barrier islands in Northhampton, New York.

The group has also published several research papers including,”Barrier Islands: Coupling Anthropogenic Stability with Ecological Sustainability” in the Journal of Coastal Research (November 2010, pgs 987-992). CBIN is also confident it will be able to renew its grant to keep its work going.

For more information visit the CBIN website.