Saltmarsh Ecosystem Research Facility
Although the combined length of the Georgia and South Carolina coastlines is only about 200 miles, the salt marshes of Georgia and South Carolina comprise 43% of the salt marsh acreage of the entire coast of the U.S. Dominated by the smooth cordgrass Spartina alterniflora in the southeastern U.S., salt marshes are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, providing structure, habitat, and food for at least some portion of the life cycle for fully three-quarters of all recreationally and commercially important fish and shellfish species. In addition to providing food and shelter for many marine organisms, the salt marsh filters pollutants and sediment from coastal waters and buffers adjacent highlands from wind and waves.
Scientists at SkIO have an established history of conducting research in pristine and contaminated salt marshes. To increase understanding of these ecosystems in coastal Georgia, Skidaway Institute constructed a 700’ long salt marsh boardwalk for research purposes, spanning a range of environments from the upland/marsh interface to a large tidal creek. With an established expertise in oceanography, Skidaway faculty use the boardwalk as a staging area for research which combines the fields of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. Recent research activities have focused on the rate of salt marsh accretion in relation to sea-level rise, pollution records in salt marsh sediments, microbiology of salt marsh ecosystems and geochemical cycling in the upper sediment column. The boardwalk also serves as an effective outdoor classroom for instruction about the coastal environment; more than 20 classes have been taught with the SERF as a focus since construction. Because Georgia salt marshes are comparatively healthy, coastal managers can use observations from this natural laboratory as a standard against which to compare pollution impacts or climate changes in similar coastal ecosystems.
At present, the boardwalk provides a platform from which to deploy instruments and to sample water or sediments from a wide range of estuarine environments. Planned enhancements include a portable laboratory building for sample processing, fiber optic connectivity for unattended, long-term instrument deployments and connection to the island power grid. The processing lab will be particularly useful for scientists who must travel from other areas of the state for field studies.