ECU receives $5 million to strengthen coastal communities

A $5 million federal grant will support East Carolina University researchers and students as they work to strengthen resilience in communities along the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary system of coastal North Carolina.

The grant is part of the National Science Foundation’s 2021 Coastlines and People Awards, or CoPe, totaling more than $29 million. ECU’s five-year project is titled “Supporting Environmental Justice in Connected Coastal Communities through a Regional Approach to Collaborative Community Science.”

ECU will serve as the central coordinating hub for more than 20 faculty members from seven universities who will work to create connections within the community, coordinate service opportunities and communicate with stakeholders. Partner universities are the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, N.C. Central University, Clemson University, the University of Virginia, Manhattan College and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“Our communities in eastern North Carolina face major challenges from water-related issues,” said Stephen Moysey, professor of geological sciences, director of the Water Resources Center at ECU and principal investigator on the study. “Increasingly extreme weather conditions are making problems like floods and droughts more common. Discharges occurring throughout our watershed lead to events like harmful algal blooms in our surface waters and long-term impacts on human and ecosystem health. Sea level rise is contributing to increased salinity in freshwater regions, transforming ecosystems and collapsing agricultural productivity.

“These problems are a shared responsibility and burden that impact both coastal and inland communities,” he said. The project will support those communities as they assess the sources of these hazards, their vulnerability to risk and approaches to collaborative decision-making to adapt to a changing coastal environment.

ECU faculty member Michael O’Driscoll

ECU faculty member Michael O’Driscoll takes measurements along the Neuse River in Kinston following Hurricane Florence in 2018. (Photo by Stephen Moysey)

ECU geoscientists, social scientists, biologists, engineers and others will work together on these complex problems. Co-principal investigators at ECU are Michael O’Driscoll, associate professor of coastal studies; Natasha Bell, assistant professor of engineering; Jacob Petersen-Perlman, assistant professor of geography, planning and environment; and Poonam Arora, chair of management and marketing at Manhattan College in New York.

“These projects are unique, community-built and embody the CoPe goals of broadening participation in science and fostering societally relevant coastal research,” said Amanda Adams, NSF CoPe program director. “The awards address coastal hazards from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico to the mid-Atlantic and engage communities from the densely populated Eastern Seaboard to tribal and rural coastal communities.”

Coastlines are vital to the U.S. economy, security and well-being, according to the NSF. Nearly 40% of the country’s population lives near a coast. Every year, that number increases. Coastal areas are under threat from extreme weather, sea level rise, coastal flooding, tsunamis, landslides, harmful algae blooms and other natural hazards that can damage housing, businesses, freshwater supplies, the electrical grid and transportation infrastructure, the NSF said.

“We are particularly focused on working with communities facing challenges associated with environmental justice problems caused by social, environmental and economic inequities,” Moysey said. “In addition, the project will partner with a variety of external partners to undertake an unprecedented effort to monitor water quality and flows in the Tar-Pamlico watershed. CoPe is about partnerships that create an opportunity for ECU students to get deeply engaged with the environmental issues faced by communities throughout eastern North Carolina as a generation of science-based advocates and community leaders.”

Those community leaders include representatives from the state, numerous eastern North Carolina cities and towns, as well as the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina. Other partners include non-governmental organizations such as Sound Rivers and the N.C. Conservation Network.

“Coastal systems are changing across the globe, and North Carolina is no different,” said Reide Corbett, dean of Integrated Coastal Programs at ECU. “It is critical that we work directly with those communities being impacted and continue to develop a better understanding of the drivers and the socio-economic implications of these changes.”

Moysey and his team were one of only three focused hubs selected by NSF out of more than 50 proposals as part of this new CoPe program. “It demonstrates the significance of their proposed research, which is based on connecting research with actionable outcomes for community partners,” Corbett said. “This groundbreaking work will help eastern North Carolina better prepare and adapt to the changes to come.”

Being a focused hub means in part that communities that are being affected by environmental changes have an opportunity to contribute to solutions.

“Research on climate change and sea level rise has been conducted extensively at ECU for more than three decades,” said Steve Culver, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at ECU. “More recently, comments from the public, coastal managers and political leadership have made it clear that the question now is ‘OK, change is happening, but what can we and what should we do about it?’ The new grant coming to Dr. Stephen Moysey and his interdisciplinary team of research colleagues is a huge step toward providing answers to that question.”

More information about the project is at In the past three years, faculty members associated with the Water Resources Center at ECU have secured more than $14 million in research funding to address water-related issues in the region.

Other grants

The Water Resources center recently received NSF funding for two other projects that will work with CoPe to provide opportunities for ECU students to contribute to solving environmental issues in eastern North Carolina.

The NSF Geopaths program, funded by a $350,000 grant, will support the formation of ECU WaterCorps, a student-based organization modeled after the environmental consulting and service industry. WaterCorps will allow students to build skills needed for success in the workforce by offering services to community-based clients that range from water quality analyses to science education and outreach. The project team comprises Moysey, Bell, Petersen-Perlman, O’Driscoll, Eric Horsman, associate professor of geological sciences, and Jeffrey Skibins, associate professor of recreation sciences.

The Coastal Community and Environmental Data Scholars research traineeship program, funded by a $2 million grant, will establish a new interdisciplinary graduate certificate program in applied data science and partner students with communities to address real-world problems in eastern North Carolina. Funding is expected to support at least 18 doctoral students from the integrated coastal sciences and interdisciplinary doctoral program in biology, biomedicine and chemistry. The project team comprises Moysey; Sid Mitra, professor of geological sciences; Ariane Peralta, associate professor of biology; Mark Bowler, associate professor of psychology; Sharon Paynter, associate vice chancellor for economic and community engagement; Rebecca Asch, assistant professor of biology; Keith Keene, associate professor of biology; Randall Etheridge, associate professor of engineering; and Haiyong Liu, professor and chair of economics.

Flooding of the Tar River

Inland communities will also be part of the project, which covers the Tar River watershed and Pamlico Sound. (Photo by Stephen Moysey)