Nature Helps Defend Military Bases from Extreme Weather Events

Five years ago, Hurricane Michael caused massive damage to Tyndall Air Force Base when it carved through the Florida Panhandle. Today, the base is wielding nature’s power to increase the military installation’s resilience against future climate and extreme weather events.  

As part of the base’s $5-billion rebuild program, researchers from the UF Center for Coastal Solutions are monitoring ecosystem conditions to guide the design, location and construction of living shorelines and the restoration of seagrass beds as a first line of defense for the base against future hurricanes.

Beatriz Marin-Diaz, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral associate and collaborator in the Coastal Resilience project at Tyndall Air Force Base.

“Nature-based coastal defenses integrate natural ecosystems like seagrass meadows, oyster reefs, marshes and dunes, with conventional coastal protection schemes,” said Beatriz Marin-Diaz, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at CCS, who leads a research team collecting ecological data. “They can be a more resilient and sustainable solution in the face of global change.” 

Seagrass meadows play a vital role in coastal ecosystems by filtering water, stabilizing bottom sediments to prevent erosion along the coast, and providing habitat and shelter for many organisms. They store large amounts of carbon and slow waves down, further protecting coastal communities and ecosystems from damage caused by storms. 

Charli Pezoldt, a research technician at the Center for Coastal Solutions, measures the percentage cover of seagrass and invertebrates in a quadrant. Scientists use this measurement to estimate seagrass percent cover in the overall research site. (Photo credit: Beatriz Marin-Diaz)

Marin-Diaz’s team monitors seagrass percent cover and surveys areas for seagrass restoration. In locations where seagrass does not grow, the team is investigating two potential reasons: sediment movement and ground disturbance from stingrays that prevent the seagrass from establishing.  

Monitoring seagrass habitats is a multi-person effort: while a team of divers swims along the seagrass edge to observe how deep and far the seagrass meadow goes, another researcher follows the divers on a kayak with a global positioning system (GPS). Here, undergraduate student Vivian Powell uses a real-time kinematic (RTK) GPS to collect accurate data on the seagrass meadow boundaries. The RTK GPS uses correction data from a base station to pinpoint the exact position of a rover, down to the centimeter. Accurate measurements of seagrass distribution are critical for resource managers and decision makers in their efforts to conserve and restore seagrass meadows. (Photo credit: Beatriz Marin-Diaz)

The Nature Conservancy, one of the project partners, will use the data to guide seagrass planting. This will provide additional coastal protection to the base by reducing the impact of waves. 

Scientists collect seagrass from a donor site to transplant to areas where seagrass is not growing. (Photo credit: Beatriz Marin-Diaz).

The team is also collecting data to assess the suitable depth for oyster recruitment, the process by which new oysters settle onto a substrate, which is the surface the oysters grow on. This data will be used by its collaborator, Jacobs Engineering, to inform the design of living shorelines in Tyndall. These living shorelines will include implementing hard substrate where oysters can settle and build a new reef. The goals of living shorelines is to create new habitat and reduce wave energy and erosion of the shoreline.  

The team is conducting a pre-construction experiment to test if and at what depth oysters recruit, which will inform efforts to construct living shorelines at Tyndall Air Base. Marin-Diaz attaches dead oyster shells to a PVC pipe. Every three months, the team checks for baby oysters attached to the dead shells. In addition to reducing coastal erosion, oyster reefs filter and clean surrounding water, provide food and shelter to hundreds of organisms and support local economies. (Photo credit: Charli Pezoldt) 

This research is part of a project in collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory, The Nature Conservancy and Jacobs Engineering. This ambitious project includes plans to build up to 1,000 feet of living shorelines and up to 3,500 feet of submerged shorelines comparable to the height of the Empire State Building and Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, respectively. These initiatives will mitigate habitat loss as well as create an additional 1,500 feet of oyster reef habitat.  

“The data is looking good inside St. Andrew’s Bay” said Marin-Diaz. “There are oysters recruiting, and the seagrass meadows look healthy. However, is not the case for the seagrass meadows in St Andrew Bay Sound, which have been retreating after the hurricane.” 

These pilot projects will provide the military with invaluable information to inform the implementation of nature-based solutions to make coastal areas more resilient in the face of global change, with possibilities for expansion in Tyndall Airforce Base and other similar installations.

Related: Defending the Gulf With Nature