Multidisciplinary team of URI researchers studies recessed dune

Research results could serve as a case study for coastal communities

Media Contact: Neil Nachbar, 401-874-9519 |
students Peter Gunn and Janelle Skaden take some measurements
URI ocean engineering students Peter Gunn and Janelle Skaden take some measurements at the Green Hill Pond dune. (Photo by Lindsay Pisapio)

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 11, 2020 — A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Rhode Island are studying how to restore a dune at a local pond, which would alleviate flood risk and improve water quality, while protecting wildlife living in the area.

The dune protects Green Hill Pond, a salt pond located mostly in South Kingstown, and is considered relatively low and undeveloped, making the adjacent community vulnerable to flooding.

M. Reza Hashemi, associate professor of ocean engineering and the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI, is leading the research team.

“Many coastline communities in the United States are facing an accelerating rate of erosion and flooding due to sea-level rise and the intensification of coastal storms,” said Hashemi. “The Green Hill Pond Beach represents a typical barrier beach system where a natural dune protects the low-lying areas of the coastal zone.”

Working with Hashemi are Chris Baxter, Annette Grille and Malcolm Spalding from ocean engineering, John King from the Graduate School of Oceanography, Peter Paton from the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, Bryan Oakley, an environmental earth science professor from Eastern Connecticut State University, and Dennis Brown from the nonprofit organization Friends of Green Hill Pond.

One of the considerations of the project is how it will impact the area’s piping plovers, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The team will work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the plover nests.

Studying the impact on the piping plovers is one of the five main components of the project. The other four include site surveys and data collection; numerical modeling; dune design; and outreach, communication with stakeholders and permitting.

One of the people involved in the numerical modeling is Janelle Skaden, a graduate student in ocean engineering at URI.

“I use the numerical model XBeach to simulate the effects of storms of various strengths in the Green Hill Pond area to determine how strong a storm would need to be to rise over the top of the dunes,” said Skaden, who is from Marshfield, Wisconsin. “Simulations were run for the current dune elevations and for a reconstructed dune scenario, with comparisons made for the amount of erosion and accretion.”

Beach recovery processes following severe storms is the subject of Skaden’s master’s thesis. Her interest in the topic was inspired by watching the region recover from Hurricane Sandy.

The potential impact of storms on the Green Hill Pond dune during the lifetime of the project is one of the challenges the research team faces.

“Understanding and predicting the response of a beach, dune or a coastal protective structure to storms is challenging,” said Hashemi. “There is no way to predict the magnitude and frequency of storms over the lifetime of the project. We can examine historical data, but that may not accurately represent the future.”

The 18-month project, which will conclude on Nov. 30, 2021, will cost $258,000 and is partially funded by the National Coastal Resilience Fund.

Hashemi hopes the team’s research will someday serve as a case study for restoration projects elsewhere in the United States.

“Our integrated approach, which includes computer modeling, in-situ surveys, environmental studies and stakeholder engagement, will provide valuable information for coastal communities and experts in many similar areas elsewhere, in terms of methodology, data and how to address stakeholder issues and permitting challenges,” said Hashemi.