Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth, but are affected negatively by a wide array of interacting human and climatic stressors, including nutrient over-enrichment, climate warming, and changes in the amount of freshwater input. The investigators seek to understand the cumulative effect of these stressors through additions to and synthesis of a long-term water-quality database for the Neuse River Estuary (NRE) in North Carolina, a representative coastal-plain estuary with a growing human population in its watershed. The NRE is experiencing increases in nutrient loading, frequency of tropical cyclones, and climatic extremes. Nutrient and carbon-cycle measurements, including CO2 exchange and microalgal (phytoplankton) production, will be collected and studied for trends and patterns of variability that link to specific stressors. It is hypothesized that regional climate patterns modulate the impacts of management efforts, thus masking potential recovery in the NRE.
Shared project data and results will help researchers, managers, and decision makers to better predict and adaptively manage water quality of estuarine ecosystems under the influence of human and climatic changes. The project will provide diverse educational and employment opportunities for post-doctoral researchers and students at the graduate, undergraduate (including those enrolled in a companion NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program), and high-school levels. Web-based summaries and classroom exercises will enhance K-12 science curricula and inform the public on local estuarine water-quality issues.