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With climate change threatening Virginia’s barrier islands, a VCU biology grad student aims to help through his new fellowship

Ben Nettleton, a master’s degree student in the Department of Biology, has been named one of two Commonwealth Coastal & Marine Policy fellows.

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Ben Nettleton works on a field experiment on Hogg Island, part of Virginia's chain of barrier islands that are experiencing rapid erosion brought about by sea level rise and climate change. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Having grown up in Iowa, coastal research might not seem like a natural focus for Ben Nettleton.

But while taking an oceanography course at the University of Northern Iowa, Nettleton found himself fascinated by a 2015 article in The New Yorker, “The Siege of Miami,” that described how Miami is threatened by sea level rise and climate change.

“It really turned me on to the socio-economic issues of sea level rise and how people who are living in these areas are affected by regular flooding,” Nettleton said. “It was interesting to see how these communities are dealing with that, or — in some cases — not dealing with that.”

Nettleton began digging into the latest literature on sea level rise and coastal change and discovered a great deal of research emerging from the Coastal Plant Ecology Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University. The lab is part of a larger group of researchers from other universities who participate in the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research program funded by the National Science Foundation.

He decided to pursue a master’s degree at VCU and joined the lab, which is led by Julie Zinnert, Ph.D., the lab’s principal investigator and an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“As an Iowa transplant, I was surprised at how quickly Ben gained incredible knowledge and depth of coastal systems,” Zinnert said. “He immediately embraced his work here — and even got a ‘Hog Ilnd’ license plate.”

“His [master’s degree] work is at the interface of plant ecology and geomorphology and he has really advanced the direction and scope of work I do in the lab,” she said. “He has a strong interest in bridging scientific research with public decision making, which is critical in coastal systems.”

As part of the Coastal Plant Ecology Lab, Nettleton conducted a field experiment on Virginia’s barrier islands that involved the manipulation of dune building grasses.

“A lot of national restoration and natural resource managers at sites across the East Coast are making decisions about which grass species to plant, [and are looking for] which ones would be able to remain resilient through storms, like hurricanes,” he said. “When a storm comes, it's going to bury the grasses. So the species [of grass] that are most tolerant of that are the ones we'd want to target for dune restoration.”

He also undertook a project in which he overlaid 32 years of satellite images of Virginia’s barrier islands to quantify how much of the islands have eroded. He also used data gathered by light sensors on the satellites that showed changes in vegetation on the islands.

“We could not only see how the islands have eroded and lost a lot of land area — there was an almost 30 percent loss of land area across the time period we were looking at — but we also saw changes happening with this rapid expansion of a shrub species that has just exploded across the islands. This rapid invasion [of a shrub species] is affecting the islands' stability.”

“It really turned me on to the socio-economic issues of sea level rise and how people who are living in these areas are affected by regular flooding. It was interesting to see how these communities are dealing with that, or — in some cases — not dealing with that.”

Nettleton, who graduates this spring, has just been named one of two Commonwealth Coastal & Marine Policy fellows.

The fellowship, which is sponsored by the Virginia Sea Grant, the Virginia Environmental Endowment and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, aims to develop and support exceptional post-graduates by partnering them with a host mentor where they receive on-the-job training and hone their professional skills while improving the stewardship of Virginia’s coastal and marine resources.

As part of the fellowship, Nettleton will work with The Nature Conservancy to conduct surveys and town hall meetings along Virginia’s Eastern Shore to hear the public’s perception on topics such as Virginia’s barrier islands, climate change, sea level rise and erosion. He also will develop a management plan with the goal of getting the public engaged on those topics.

Additionally, the fellowship will enable Nettleton to shadow officials at policy offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and The Nature Conservancy. He also will accompany lobbyists with other nonprofits, such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as they meet with lawmakers at the General Assembly.

“I’ll be getting to see all those different policy levels, from the local scale all the way up to the federal scale,” Nettleton said.

The fellowship will serve as a great segue to his career goals of applying research to the real world, informing the public and policymakers on critical decisions affecting communities.

“My career plans are really in line with what this fellowship is all about,” he said. “Kind of tying the knot between science, public policy and the general public. Bringing people together and integrating those fields.”

Cristina Carollo, senior coastal scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, will work with Nettleton.

“With his interest in bridging science and policy, and his ability to communicate with different audiences, Ben will support The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve efforts to demonstrate and communicate the role of natural and nature-based solutions in supporting resilient coastal communities, including socio-economic benefits,” she said in a news release announcing the fellowship recipients. “This fellowship allows TNC to further the conservation of Virginia’s coastal and marine resources while making the case for natural climate solutions as the adaptation strategy for resilient coastal communities.”

The other Commonwealth Coastal & Marine Policy fellow is Lauren Pudvah, a master’s of public policy candidate at the College of William & Mary, who matched with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.