Stay Off the Dunes (Video)

Bianca Reo Charbonneau, Ph.D. candidate in biology, studies how sand dunes protect the Jersey coast.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

By Katherine Unger Baillie

Filmed and edited by Alex Schein

Biology Ph.D. candidate Bianca Reo Charbonneau is studying sand dunes at the Jersey shore. Her findings are already helping steer land managers toward better-informed strategies for preserving and restoring dunes so they can help protect the coast from storm damage.

Growing up in Parsippany, N.J., Bianca Reo Charbonneau adored visiting the beach and imagined she would one day live there full-time. She remembers, however, her parents cautioning, “It’s better to know someone with a house down the shore than to have one yourself.”

That advice took on a prescient quality in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the New Jersey coastline. Charbonneau, at the time a master’s student studying biology at Villanova University, took the storm personally.

“After Sandy, I was really upset and wanted to do something to give back to the community,” she says.

Now a third-year doctoral candidate in Penn’s Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences, Charbonneau has channeled her dismay at the damage Sandy wrought into an academic exploration of the Jersey shore’s dunes. Already her findings are helping steer land managers toward better-informed strategies for preserving and restoring dunes so they can help buffer the coast from storm damage.

Charbonneau was surprised when, in Sandy’s wake, she found few researchers intensively studying Jersey coast dunes and the plants that hold them together. Working at northern New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park, she set out to fill in the knowledge gaps. Her initial research examined how different plant species and various types of fencing contributed to erosion-prevention and dune regrowth post-storm.

For her doctoral work, Charbonneau is paying special attention to the effect of storms on dunes. After every major storm, she drives two hours from Philadelphia to Island Beach to assess the impact of the water and winds.

“I literally walk the crest of the dunes with a GPS and take a measurement each step,” she says. “It’s very physically demanding because I’m walking up to 10 miles a day in the sand. My Achilles [tendons] aren’t happy after longer field days.”

Charbonneau is also continuing to focus on the hardy dune grasses that act like nets to hold the sand in place. For example, she is curious to find out whether the presence of mycorrhizal fungi influences how plants are able to hold on or recover in the aftermath of storms.

With support from the Department of Defense, Charbonneau will also be building an eight-foot high, 32-foot long wind tunnel to experimentally test the effect of different plants—specifically their shapes—on the establishment of dunes after storms.

Dunes can be a controversial topic among coastal communities because they block beachfront property views and opinions vary on best management practices. As a result, she is also mentoring a high school student to conduct social science research to probe people’s attitudes toward the dunes, such as whether they understand why it is important to avoid walking on them.

With her work, Charbonneau is aiming to provide land managers with concrete information to help them rebuild dunes faster and stronger in the wake of storms. As a side benefit, she may also shift public perception and show more people the wisdom of her parents’ words.

“I'm hoping that just by being able to document, with hard numbers and visually, how powerful these storms are, people will start to realize that living in certain areas of the coast is not a long-term solution,” she says.

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To follow the progress of Charbonneau’s work and learn more about her research, visit her website.