Understanding the Coastline: U.Va. Celebrates Opening of New Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center

Sept. 8, 2006 -- On a clear day full of sunny optimism, the University of Virginia dedicated its new $2.5 million Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center. The event was held Aug. 26. The center is the new home base for the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, conducted by U.Va. environmental scientists on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

The state-of-the-art facility is located on 42 acres in the town of Oyster, Va., about 15 miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It includes more than 9,400 square feet of dry and wet lab space, a 5,800-square-foot residence building that can accommodate 30 people, and a dock for its fleet of four shallow water research vessels.

About 200 people attended the event, including many from the local community.

Speakers included President John T. Casteen III, Jay Zieman, chairman of the Department of Environmental Sciences, Karen McGlathery, scientific director of the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center, David Smith, associate chairman of environmental sciences, and officials from the Nature Conservancy, the National Science Foundation, and other federal and state agencies, and U.Va. alumnus John L. Nau III, owner of an Anheuser-Busch distributorship. Nau played an instrumental role in gaining a $1.2 million gift from the Anheuser-Busch Companies to help build the center. Other funding included a $1 million donation from Paul Tudor Jones, and $300,000 from the National Science Foundation.

U.Va. has been conducting research through the LTER since 1986 with major support from the NSF, as well as various other research grants and private donations. Recently the research was re-funded for an additional six years by the NSF ($820,000 per year) through its LTER program,
which includes a network of environmental projects at 26 sites across the North American continent.

“We are looking at long term change to the coastal landscape, particularly related to global climate change and land-use change,” said Karen McGlathery, the lead scientist for the project at the Coastal Research Center. “We use what we learn to make predictions of what may occur in the future. That is important for resource managers at the local, state and national levels.
What we learn from this area can be applied to other coastal systems.”

The new center will greatly expand and enhance the capability of scientists working on the Eastern Shore. It provides first-rate laboratory and housing facilities for faculty, visiting researchers and students. The facility is networked with other research sites, and scientists are able to remotely access real-time data and observations from monitoring equipment located at field sites. The facility also has a conference room for community outreach projects including a planned lecture series. The center will serve as a magnet to attract visiting researchers and graduate students.

U.Va.’s LTER research focuses on the barrier islands, lagoons, tidal marshes and watersheds of the 45,000-acre Virginia Coast Reserve, owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. Because the area is undeveloped, and also because of the very fine grain sand that makes up the barrier islands, the reserve is one of the best places on the East Coast for studying barrier island geology and coastal ecology. These are some of the most rapidly changing islands on earth, altering shape at a rate that is about 10 times faster than in most other coastal areas, therefore the reserve serves as a living laboratory for understanding natural processes that occur all along the sandy coasts of the United States.

Researchers at the LTER are working to develop a predictive understanding of how climate and land use influence the dynamics of coastal barrier ecosystems. Scientists at the center monitor sea level rise, storm frequencies, groundwater flow rates, marsh growth and erosion, water chemistry, finned fish and shellfish populations, vegetation, (including a sea grass restoration
project, in conjunction with the Virginia Institute for Marine Science), and bird and mammal populations.

The new center is a huge improvement over an aging farmhouse that had previously been used as a station. The University will further expand the center in coming years, and is expected to draw top environmental scientists from across the United States. U.Va. scientists already are collaborating at the center with researchers from the Virginia Institute for Marine Science,
East Carolina University, Old Dominion University, Florida State, VCU, Utah State, the Naval Research Lab and the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

“This whole facility was designed around partnerships between the local community, our funders, our donors and are scientific colleagues,” said Smith. “The greatly expanded lab space and dormitories will help us build an even stronger research community on the Eastern Shore.”