CELS professor improves coastal resilience by looking to the past

EngelhartHow can we prepare for coastal hazards such as tsunamis, earthquakes, and sea-level rise if we don’t know their extent or when and where they are going to occur? Simon Engelhart, in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, looks to the past to answer this critical question about the future.

“I determine the possible coastal hazards on timescales from minutes to millennia, that can then be used to manage communities’ exposure to risk,” said Engelhart, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences.

Conducting research on sea-level rise around the world, from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States to further afield in Indonesia, Bermuda, and Chile, Dr. Engelhart’s research can help communities reduce the risks of property damage, loss of life, and environmental destruction.

“The key to preparing for the future is to know the past,” suggested Engelhart. 

Engelhart’s research focuses on the impact of sea-level rise, a growing threat in the Ocean State and other coastal communities. Scientists can learn a lot about sea-level rise going back thousands to tens of thousands of years by gathering soil samples from underneath salt marshes. Engelhart uses radiocarbon techniques and isotope data to date the collected samples. Dr. Engelhart can then determine elevation estimates of past coastal areas by identifying the type of tiny, fossilized animals in the soil called foraminifera. Collectively these data are then used to work out where sea level was at various points in history. 

So far, Engelhart’s research shows that the Atlantic coast of the U.S. is sinking due to the disappearance of the ancient Laurentide Ice Sheet. This ice sheet, which encompassed most of Canada and Northern United States, prompted the land around Rhode Island to rise, creating a feature known as a proglacial forebulge. The collapse of this feature after the ice sheet melted is now causing land to subside in many areas including Rhode Island.

“By year 2100, Rhode Island will see approximately an extra 10cm (4 inches) in addition to the global average sea-level rise due to this land subsidence,” explained Engelhart. This type of information can be used with sea-level rise predictions to help policy makers develop effective adaptation and mitigation plans.

Engelhart2In addition to Engelhart’s focus on sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast, Engelhart has been working in Alaska to answer questions about the past frequency of earthquakes in the area and what that information can tell us about how, when, and where earthquakes and associated tsunamis might occur in the future. The implications of this research go far beyond Alaska. Densely populated West Coast cities such as Los Angeles could also be threatened by earthquakes in Alaska that produce potentially dangerous tsunamis able to travel through the Pacific Ocean.

“The port of Los Angeles is the sixth busiest port in the world and annually carries cargo with a value over 200 billion dollars,” offered Engelhart. “Recent research has shown California is vulnerable to tsunamis caused by Alaskan earthquakes, but, until recently, we had little idea how often these occurred. My research has helped to address this gap in our knowledge.”

Engelhart works to introduce URI students to this important research about global climate change and coastal hazards inside the classroom and out. 

“I believe it is important for the students to get out in the field and see first hand these geological changes,” said Engelhart.

Besides teaching university undergraduate and graduate students, Engelhart is also a part of Earthwatch Institute’s Ignite program, an initiative that gives high school students the opportunity to go into the field with scientists to help conduct cutting-edge research. During the past two summers, he has led two-week residential fieldtrips into salt marshes in Maryland and Rhode Island.

As Engelhart continues to conduct research on sea-level rise around the world, he’ll continue to share his vast knowledge and experience with students, inspiring the next generation of scientists.