SCSU student research benefits Connecticut’s coastal towns

Lara Bracci holds a mirror target while conducting beach profiles. (photo: Lara Bracci)

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On August 28, 2011, Hurricane Irene abruptly arrived along the Connecticut coastline.  Its wide path of destruction left behind major property damage and intense flooding.

Dr. James Tait, Professor of the Environment, Geography, and Marine Sciences (EGMS) at Southern Connecticut State University, lives near Cosey Beach in East Haven and witnessed the devastation up close. While the storm was ravaging the beach and some of the properties in the area, Tait grabbed his camera and ventured out into the storm to take photographs.

“I’m an earth scientist, I’m an oceanographer. Nature flexing her muscles is something I’m into,” said Tait of the experience.

The vigor of the storm was incredible. Entire houses crumpled as the storm waves crashed against the shoreline, with waves frequently splashing over second story roofs. In total, Hurricane Irene destroyed twenty homes in East Haven, leaving five others with irrevocable damage caused by the flooding and storm surge.

Fast forward nearly a year to October 2012, when Superstorm Sandy landed in Connecticut, bringing even more destruction to towns that had not yet fully recovered from Irene’s impact. Among those hardest hit in Connecticut were East Haven, Milford, and Fairfield.

Why are some homes and buildings more vulnerable than others to storm damage? This is the question Tait wanted to investigate.  He found that location is the most important predictor of harm: the structures with the most serious damage sat 10-12 meters away from the waterline, while the structures standing 24-40 meters from the waterline experienced minor or no wave damage at all.

These observations indicate the necessity for buildings on the shoreline to have additional protection from  the potentially devastating impacts of storms, and often a wide stretch of beach can be the key. These wide strips of beach act as a buffer and absorb the high amounts of energy from the storm waves before they can reach the buildings or roads and cause any damage.

“If the waves aren’t moving sand around, they will move houses around,” said Tait.

Tait serves as co-coordinator for the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies (WCCMS) along with Dr. Vincent Breslin, professor of EGMS, and Dr. Sean Grace, professor of biology. Tait and Breslin formed the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies in 2006. The WCCMS is named after Peter and Pam Werth, who have continually donated to the Center for Coastal and Marine Studies through the Werth Family Foundation. The Werths appreciate that the center is doing work that helps the community and leverages student success, and their contributions have gone toward purchasing equipment and supporting student researchers.

The WCCMS allows faculty and students from Southern and other CSU universities to participate in collaborative research and education projects on topics like water quality monitoring, heavy metal and sediment contamination in the harbors, plastics in the marine environment, coastal erosion and vulnerability, and the impacts of large storms.

“Students are paid research assistants, so after a couple of years working at the center, they will have that professional experience under their belts,” said Tait. “We also make them fellows, which is an academic honor, and good for grad school applications.”

Seeing firsthand the wreckage inflicted upon the Connecticut coastline by the back-to-back storms of Irene and Sandy and the need for more well-informed coastal management plans, Tait recognized the potential for students at the WCCMS to get further involved with coastal erosion and vulnerability research.  

Under Tait’s guidance, several students – including Kaitlyn Stobierski, Catherine Cota, Steve Krozier, Michelle Ritchie, Fatima Cecunjanin, and others – have engaged in various research projects over the past few years relating to coastal vulnerability and storm impacts. Some students helped Tait to study the impacts of Superstorm Sandy in East Haven and analyze why some areas were badly impaired and others less so. Other students assessed the stability of West Haven’s beaches and analyzed how to make the town’s beach management plans more efficient.

West Haven is one town in particular that continues to struggle to maintain its beaches. Long Island acts like a barrier and shields Connecticut’s coastlines from the more energetic waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  Because of this sheltering, the waves going toward Connecticut’s shore are smaller-than-average and are too weak to carry eroded sand back to the shore. fair weather waves, that in other coastal setting would have pushed sand eroded during storms back to shore,  are too weak to do so. As a result, Connecticut’s coastlines are naturally erosive and wear away easily, and beaches in towns like West Haven are especially susceptible.

To remedy this, the beaches must continually undergo expensive beach replenishment projects, where thousands of tons of sand are imported, dumped onto the beaches, and spread out. West Haven has undergone at least three beach replenishment projects since the 1950s. The most recent one began in October 2014 and cost 3.79 million dollars. The cost of a beach replenishment project per linear foot was $55.41 in 1957 at the time of the first project and has since escalated to $842.22 per linear foot in 2014 at the time of the most recent project. With the price of sand having jumped from $0.81 per cubic yard in 1957 to $73.30 per cubic yard in 2014, sand is more expensive than ever before.

So where does all this expensive sand go, and why must it be replaced so frequently? To discover the fate of this sand and how much erosion is happening, Tait sought out some assistance.

Ryan Orlowski and Dylan Steinberg, both seniors studying Earth Science at Southern and research fellows at the Werth Center, are currently conducting a beach surveillance project of the West Haven beaches and building upon previous research conducted by Southern students to try to answer these questions. Since May 2015, Orlowski and Steinberg routinely track the rates and volumes of beach erosion at twelve locations along the West Haven beach. They monitor the newly-placed beach fill using a device called a total station, which takes elevation and distance measurements of the beach profiles.  These measurements allow them to determine the dispersal patterns of the sand (how much is being moved down the beach as well as how much is being deposited offshore) by observing the changes in beach profiles. Steinberg and another senior, Lara Bracci, who studies marine and environmental studies at Southern, have also been testing for the presence of beach profiles (the changes in sand placement and where it might be moving) on a seasonal basis (four times per year) at five different Connecticut beach sites using a total station in order to further assess the vulnerability of Connecticut’s beaches.

These current projects will provide coastal communities with the data necessary to make well-informed decisions regarding the distribution of sand in their next beach replenishment project. “We can help make their decision-making smarter and more data-based,” said Orlowski. Financially, this will aid communities such as West Haven in the long-term.

Their findings confirm previous research showing that some of the sand moves down the beach, while some sand accumulates to form offshore sandbars. Tait proposes that instead of continually replacing the sand with sand brought in from distant sources, only to have it wash away, coastal towns should pull the eroded sands back onshore. Tait and the student research fellows want to document exactly how much sand is moving off the beaches so that they can suggest state policy for places like West Haven to be able to reclaim the sand and move it back. “It’s bought and paid for. We’d just like to move it back to where it came from,” said Tait.

At about three miles long, West Haven beaches are the largest stretch of public beaches in the state. These beaches are important to effectively maintain for residents and tourists alike who enjoy the beaches, as well as the establishments that depend upon the beaches for their business. Additionally, the beaches are essential for protecting structures against storm waves and minimizing the damage that occurs.

“This is an incredibly important bit of research for the city, not just because of the cost, but because of other aspects that impact the resilience of the West Haven coast,” said Tait. “These students are doing important work for the community, and it’s really cool.”


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