Hardly a day goes by that a staff member from Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines isn’t asked how such a program ended up in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
But for program director Rob Young and his crew, it’s not as crazy as others seem to think.
“It’s not really weird to us,” Young said. “As long as you have access to an airport and a computer, you can operate from anywhere. We can get to the Gulf Coast and coastal North Carolina in a day’s drive. We also work internationally.”
In fact, you could make the case that the PSDS is thriving in the mountains. It has become a renowned international authority on helping find economically viable and environmentally sound solutions to coastal problems. This year marks the 10th year the PSDS has operated at WCU.
Orrin Pilkey founded the program in the mid-1980s at Duke University, where Young was a graduate student at the time. When Pilkey decided to step down as director, he identified Young as the person to take over. But Young, a professor at WCU at the time, and his family were entrenched in Jackson County.
Later, former WCU director of regional affairs Tom McClure suggested bringing the program to WCU. After a strong push from then-provost Kyle Carter, the PSDS made its way to Cullowhee in 2006.
“We’re a coastal program in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and yet we’ve gone well beyond that in terms of our impact regionally and universally,” said PSDS assistant director Andy Coburn.
Young and Coburn have been quoted many times by major news organizations such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and also featured in high-profile magazines. They have appeared on television news shows such as “NBC Nightly News” and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” and on The Weather Channel.
The PSDS is a self-sustaining program. With the exception of Young and Coburn, whose salaries are paid by WCU, the rest of the six-member full-time staff and the work that they do is fully funded through grants. In the PSDS’s 10 years, it has raised more than $7 million in grants, including the largest grant received from the National Science Foundation in WCU history.
The PSDS has worked extensively with the National Park Service on several projects over the years. Among those is standardizing climate change and natural hazard vulnerability assessments in national parks.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say WCU and Cullowhee have been an important part of protecting that national heritage,” Young said. “Right here in little old Cullowhee, N.C., is the primary go-to group for protecting park assets from coastal hazards, storms and climate change. That’s pretty exciting.”
The PSDS also has developed an interactive beach nourishment website, and compiled a storm surge database that includes all storm surge, storm tide and high-water mark data collected in the U.S., along with storm track and landfall meteorology. Katie McDowell Peek, a 2007 WCU alumna and one of two coastal research scientists with the PSDS, worked on the database. That information can be found in a mobile app, allowing users to see where storm surges have taken place, Young said.
The PSDS’s other coastal research scientist, Blair Tormey, has used its two ground-penetrating radar antennas for coastal research projects ranging from forensic anthropology and archaeological sites to barrier island stratigraphy.
In an “Independent Review of the University of North Carolina System Marine and Coastal Activities” conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Research Competitiveness Program, it was pointed out just how valuable the PSDS has become.
“PSDS program leaders include undergraduates in their research programs and in the development of data product and publication outputs,” the report said. “PSDS program leaders are also engaged in significant service to federal, state and local communities on issues related to coastal processes. At WCU, the PSDS has also expanded into areas beyond simply coastal processes, but related to its geological foundation. It is a tremendous resource for students at WCU and at Duke, and it would be beneficial if it was promoted more conspicuously as an opportunity for students throughout the system.”
In addition to its work with the National Park Service, another project Young said he is proud to be associated with is the Elwha Science Education Project in Washington State. The project, funded by the NSF with a $1.5 million grant, was designed to increase Native American tribal youth’s understanding of earth science using the Elwha River restoration project as a living model and laboratory. The project, which was featured in Smithsonian magazine, won an award for diversity education in Washington, Young said.
“That’s probably something that I’ve done in my career that I’m most proud of,” Young said. “I feel good whenever I’m out there. I’ve sort of grown up with this group of kids. In the last 10 years, I’ve probably met every single one of their kids.”
The work the PSDS has done during the last 10 years has earned recognition from the North Carolina Coastal Federation. On Aug. 6, the federation presented the program a Pelican Award for its work in helping protect and restore North Carolina’s coast.
The program also has been a training ground for students. It maintains a partnership with Duke’s Stanback Internship Program, which is funded by philanthropists Fred and Alice Stanback. This year’s recipient, Devon McGhee, a Duke graduate student from Long Island, N.Y., seeking a master’s in environmental management, spent the summer working on PSDS projects.
“It definitely has exceeded my expectations,” McGhee said. “It’s a good group of people to work with, and I think the work we’re doing is really important. It’s nice seeing everyone so excited about what they’re doing because you don’t always find that.”
Deanna Hellinger, a rising junior from Hickory who is majoring in environmental science at WCU, has been working on a beach nourishment project in New Jersey.
“Before I came here, I was aware of sea-level rise and all of the issues on the coast, but I had never known much about beach nourishment, which is what I’ve been working on, and how bad the condition is,” she said.
Coburn said he would like to see further student involvement in the future.
“We have not done a fantastic job of having students,” Coburn said. “Last semester and over the summer, we had all these projects going on and we realized we needed additional help, and we got a bunch of undergraduate students to come in and we said we need to continue doing this. Not only is it good for them, it’s good for us and it’s good for the school. It’s just a win-win.”
Other full-time staff members at the PSDS include Holli Thompson, who has managed all the center’s grants and projects since 2007, and Blake Barnett, a 2016 WCU graduate who is a geographic information systems data specialist, who works on computer-based mapping and analysis.
For more information on PSDS, visit psds.wcu.edu.
By Marlon W. Morgan