The 17,500-acre Hobcaw Barony offers research opportunities for faculty and students in an ecological reserve of forests, high-salinity marsh estuaries, and brackish and freshwater marshes. Research is enhanced by cooperative programs with the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Geological Survey, US Department of Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA-NRCS, SC Sea Grant, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, US Forest Service, SCDHEC State Revolving Fund, Pee Dee Research and Education Endowment, Frances Bunnelle Foundation, and National Audubon Society.
Scientists at the Baruch Institute study coastal forested, riparian and wetland ecosystems, including wildlife, forestry, biogeochemistry, hydrology, microbiology, and sediment transport. Studies include environmental chemistry and toxicology, water quality, fluvial geomorphology, low impact development practices, stormwater treatment, and landscape ecology to help commercial developers preserve the area’s fragile ecosystems. In addition, the institute offers educational seminars for school groups and the public on the coastal environment and the importance of wise management of natural resources.
Characterizing Changes in Natural Organic Matter Influenced by Climate Change, Coastal Development, and Forest Management
The combination of rising sea level over a relatively flat Coastal Plain, rapid urban expansion in rural areas, and an increasing demand on water and natural resources places a great stress on coastal ecosystems of South Carolina. Pools of matter and organisms, biogeochemical cycles, and even the functions of ecosystems can differ greatly from previous states of ecosystem alternation. My research program explores the consequences of sea level rise and coastal development upon biogeochemical processes and halocarbon formation along the urban-rural and forest-marsh transition, and will determine how changes along this gradient affect the ecosystem services provided by these wetlands. Understanding changes in light of climate change will also help us proactively plan for sustainable coastal development. Results of my research will quantitatively answer questions posed by scientists, stakeholders, policy, and decision makers, developers, and planners concerning options for controlling greenhouse gas emission and carbon sequestration.
Ecology and Management of Forested Wetland Ecosystems of the Southern United States
Forested wetlands have been an influential component of the economy and culture of the southern United States since the earliest settlements. These ecosystems have been used for transportation, food and fiber, flood control, wildlife habitat, recreation, and all too often, a fertile site for conversion to agriculture. The importance of wetlands to the southern economy and concern over their decreasing extent has lead to a surge of research activity as well as litigation and discord over competing wetland uses. Hydrology is one of the most important driving forces in forested wetlands, and the length, depth, and timing of flooding determines the diversity and productivity of these systems. Changes in normal hydrology patterns due to stream channelization or construction of roads, canals, levees, or dams affect the establishment and growth of forest species. Another aspect of hydrology that needs consideration, especially in coastal areas, is eustatic sea level rise and subsidence. The long-term impacts of disturbance is a major area of research in Dr. Conner’s program. Only long-term research can consider both the short- and long-term fluctuations of key driving forces. In addition, Dr. Conner is examining processes across the entire southern United States to determine if all wetlands function similarly.
Coastal Development and Nonpoint Source Pollution in South Carolina: A Systems Approach to Managing Water Resources
The assessment of potential water quality and quantity impacts in coastal areas due to existing and future land use change is being explored, specifically related to the conversion of forests to urbanized areas. Dr. Hitchcock's research focuses on linking land use and water resource management practices to water quantity and quality impacts. Investigations are occurring at three levels of scale for land use practices and water resources management in coastal South Carolina: (1) the individual stormwater management practice (BMP), (2) the development tract, and (3) the watershed scale. The overarching proposed research questions are as follows:
- How effective are certain practices for water resource management and water quality improvement between upland area land uses (e.g., residential and commercial development, golf courses, etc.) and downstream water resources (e.g., creeks, ponds, rivers, lakes, estuaries) in the South Carolina lower coastal plain areas with shallow water tables?
- Can a watershed monitoring and modeling approach be used to determine effectiveness and water quality improvement based on pre- and post-development in a coastal watershed?
Evaluating human and climatic impacts on streamflow and sediment transport in coastal South Carolina
Agriculture and commercial development in coastal South Carolina are very dependent upon the effective management of storm runoff and shallow groundwater conditions. The prevention of flooding in urban areas and ensuring arable soils in agricultural areas govern most aspects of stormwater runoff control here, typically in the form of stormwater ponds and channelized ditches. These two stormwater management practices tend to circumvent more resilient and assimilative ecosystem services otherwise offered by streams and wetlands in undisturbed landscapes. The proliferation of ponds and ditches in the region has come at a mounting ecological cost to the state with preliminary work suggesting that traditional water management strategies can increase sediment loads and short-circuit the movement of pollutants from landscape to ocean. My research focusses on extending our understanding of how the two big stressors on coastal hydrologic processes – population increase and climate change, affect the movement of sediment and water from landscape to ocean. Ultimately, the research hopes to develop strategies to ensure the sustainable management of water resources in coastal South Carolina, essential to the safety and well-being of her water-bound citizens.