From the Field

Missives, notes, photos and other action from our adventures in studying Plum Island.

CommonWealth Magazine Plum Island Article

July 8, 2015 by Chris Hein

An excellent story by Gabrielle Gurley was posted yesterday in the CommonWealth Magazine covering the interactions of geology, policy, and politics on Plum Island. I (Chris) spoke at some length with Gabrielle while she was writing this, and passed along some of the insights we have gained from our now two-year-old study of Plum Island. Check out the article here: Plum Island at Risk


June 14, 2015 by Chris Hein

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newbury, MA

Maybe you’ve heard of the recent uproar over the asinine comments of Tim Hunt about female scientists? If not, read more about it here. We here at the Plum Island Research project know that it is no surprise that in science, as in so many other fields, sexism remains frustratingly, stubbornly, and disappointingly alive and well. We throw our full support behind the online movement against these outrageous comments and the worldview they represent. To that end, I present the ever #distractinglysexy Claudia, proving that THERE’S NO CRYING IN DRILLING! 

Dispatch from the Field

by Chris Hein

Rowley House, Rowley, MA

One week down . . . one to go. Claudia, Justin, and I are at the half-way point of a major field work excursion to Plum Island. Work on lots of different projects going on this time. For once, we’re actually not working on the beach itself. Instead, we’re in the marshes and tidal flats of Plum Island – the Great Marsh – the region of a barrier island system generally called the “backbarrier”.

Not only is the marsh a vital economic and environmental resource, but the sediments in the backbarrier can tell us a lot about Plum Island itself. For example, think about the sediments feeding the island. All of that sand is coming down the Merrimack River. Along with it is fine sand, silt, and clay. These sediments become sorted in the Merrimack River estuary, with the coarse material making it out the beach and the finer becoming trapped in Joppa Flats and the Great Marsh. We can look at the deposition rates of sediment in those systems and they can tell us something about the rates at which sand is making it to Plum Island over the past few hundred years . . . and how humans have changed that rate through things like deforestation (during the Colonial period) and the building of dams along the river.

So, that brings us to our work in the backbarrier! This past week we’ve tackled two major projects. The first involved again pulling out our Geoprobe drill rig and collecting more sediment cores along the back side of Plum Island. You can see some photos from last year’s drilling effort here. We made a few tweaks to the system and this year we hit 75 feet deep! Through the entire barrier island sequence (barrier dunes and beach sands, through 3000-year-old marsh and thousands of years of backbarrier sand) and into the underlying glacial deposits (the glaciomarine clay known around here as the “Boston Blue Clay”, which was deposited some 17,000 years ago). This is what we wanted – get through all 75 feet of Plum Island so we can use organic chemical tools called “biomarkers” to study where that sand is from. Claudia & Justin had a great write-up of their process of opening and describing last year’s cores – see that in this old blog here.

Justin and Zach collecting a piston core in the sediments of Joppa Flats.

Justin and Zach collecting a piston core in the sediments of Joppa Flats.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Andy and Zach (now a masters student at UMass) joined us and we collected a series of “piston” cores in Joppa Flats. The system is neat – we strapped together two canoes with a piece of plywood between them. A hole in the middle of the plywood between the canoes allowed us to core into the sand and mud of Joppa Flats even during high tide. Our cores, which were up to 7 feet long, record hundreds of years of sedimentation – basically, the sand and mud that was coming down the river when Europeans first arrived in northeastern MA.

After a quick jaunt this weekend up to Maine to run some ground-penetrating radar along a 5000-year-old channel of the Kennebec River (I’ll tell you about this some other time), we’re back in Rowley on a beautiful Sunday evening. Tomorrow, we start round #2 for this trip. Collecting more cores! This time only ~ 3 ft long cores in the man-made freshwater ponds on the Refuge. We’ll also be helping our colleagues to collect instruments that have been out in the tidal channels of the Great Marsh for the last month collecting wave, tide and current data.  You might also see us out taking a few short cores in the marsh itself – studying how fast those have been growing over the past 100 years. Look for us on Wednesday (I think) north of the Plum Island Turnpike, on the Plum Island side of the bridge over the Plum Island River.

The VIMS crew stands out . . . we have a big VIMS truck. Feel free to stop by and say hello if you see us working or driving around the area.

– Chris, Claudia, & Justin

Plum Island Research Team Presents Results at International Conference

May 15, 2015 by Chris Hein

Williamsburg, VA

I am just back from beautiful, sunny San Diego! Andy Fallon and I were out there all of this past week at the Coastal Sediments conference. While I gave a talk about my work on the beaches of Brazil, Andy had the opportunity to present on the work he has been doing towards the completion of his masters thesis – work focused entirely on the erosion problem on Plum Island.

Andy presented some very neat and exciting results looking at the long-term changes along the shoreline of northern Plum Island. By mapping old high-water lines from aerial photographs, satellite imagery, and maps, he discovered that the shoreline of Plum Island undergoes periodic shifts. As anyone living on Plum island knows, the beach is often quite wide all along the northern part of the island. However, once every 25-40 years, it undergoes periods of erosion. Andy observed these in 1912, the mid-1950s, the late 1970s, and of course this most recent period of erosion which started at Center Island in 2008 and continues today south of Annapolis Way and towards the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. In other words – the erosion we see today has happened before . . . and will likely happen again.

Each time the beach erodes, local homeowners and the towns jump in to help alleviate the problem and protect property: the groins in the 50s and 70s, the rip-rap revetments of the 70s and the last few years, the beach-scape and coir bags on 2008-2010. One of the interesting things Andy has found is that even though some of these measures help in the short-term, they can cause lasting damage. For example, it appears (we’re not yet certain, but the evidence suggests) that the groins along Plum Island (note, the groins on the beach, NOT the jetties at the river mouth inlet) might be exacerbating the erosion problem. More to come on this later once we’ve had a chance to better analyze the data.

Andy also presented on his short-term mapping work – the 14 months of beach mapping he has been doing (see more on that in this post from October 2014). Andy has observed the “hoptspot” of erosiion shift from Annapolis Way south. He has also observed (and quantified the volumes of sand!) large seasonal variability in the size of the Plum Island beach. We know this happens (see this post from last fall), but now we have numbers to do what scientists do best – quantify it! The most impressive result? The erosion “hotspot” overwhelms the seasonal variability. We know this thing is serious from all the houses it has taken in . . . now we can show just how large the hotspot is and how much sand it takes away when it comes to town.

One of the most important jobs we have as scientists is presenting the results of our work to our peers – that is how science builds and how we can apply the lessons from Plum Island to beaches across the world. There were ~400 people at this recent conference we attended, representing 37 countries! The story of Plum Island is spreading.

We’ll have more on the final results of Andy’s work on this site in the future. However, if you are interested to learn more about what he presented at this conference, you can download his conference paper here and view a PDF of the powerpoint presentation he gave here.

A short weekend in Virginia and then a bunch of us are heading up to Massachusetts on Monday for field work in the Great Marsh behind Plum Island. We’re renting a house for the week on Plum Island, so if you see us around, please stop by and say hello.

Plum Island Research Featured in Public Radio Interview

April 21, 2015 by Chris Hein

Gloucester Point, VA

Chris was interviewed by the public radio program “With Good Reason” in an interview that aired last week. The discussion centers around sea-level rise and coastal changes and includes discussions of our work on Plum Island. Audio of the full interview can be found here: “Dragons of Inaction”. Check it out!

We’ll be heading back north for several trips for field work in and around Plum Island in May and June. Check back soon for details on dates and field plans.

Digging into the Past: Analysis of Sediment Cores Collected on Plum Island

January 28, 2015 by Chris Hein

By: Justin Shawler & Claudia Shuman

Gloucester Point, VA

With snow having finally come to the warm shores of Gloucester Point (we’ll be nice and just say something shy of the 3’ covering most of New England . . . ), team scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) have hunkered down for the winter. Although field operations shut down early in the season, science marches on! In the VIMS sediment analysis laboratory, Ph.D. student Claudia Shuman and William & Mary undergraduate Justin Shawler are opening and processing sediment cores collected during earlier field work on Plum Island.

Chris, Andy, and Luis collected these cores over this past summer using the team’s drill rig. The cores were extracted in four-foot sections, reaching depths of up to 48 feet! In the language of sedimentology, the deeper you go, the older you get. Therefore, these cores serve as a window into past depositional environments, telling us something about where the sediment in the core came from. Understanding how the source and supply of sediment to Plum Island changes through time is vital to the broader understanding of barrier island dynamics.

The sediment cores, kept cold to preserve their organic components, undergo analysis as soon as they are opened. Upon visual inspection, each core can immediately tell us something about where its contents came from. We might, for instance, be greeted with a dark, organic-rich section, smelling strongly of sulfur (reminiscent of rotting eggs); such a layer would be indicative of deposition in an ancient marsh environment. In contrast, a lighter, courser-grained section with pebbles is indicative of sediment derived from a river (likely the Merrimack!) hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Following initial visual inspection, we prepare the core for both traditional photography and x-ray analysis by scraping off the top layer of sediment to create a level surface. Photography creates a permanent record of visual clues (such as color and grain size) indicating depositional environment. X-Ray analysis helps us to see beyond our initial visual observations, highlighting changes in sediment structure (for instance, laminations) that are not discernable to the naked eye.

Claudia measures a core (left), operates the x-ray scanner (middle), and uses a Munsell soil color chart to make a visual observation of the core at hand (right). Photo credit: Justin Shawler.

Claudia measures a core (left), operates the x-ray scanner (middle), and uses a Munsell soil color chart to make a visual observation of the core at hand (right). Photo credit: Justin Shawler.

In addition to x-ray-assisted visual clues, we take note of sediment characteristics such as mud and organic content, grain composition, angularity, sorting, and color to determine sampling intervals within each core. Ideally, each sediment sample collected represents a unique time period in the geologic history of the Island. A maximum of 10 cm is collected per sample, but often much shorter segments are sampled due to shifts in major sediment characteristics.

Claudia samples a core for eventual organic analysis. Photo credit: Chris Hein.

Claudia samples a core for eventual organic analysis. Photo credit: Chris Hein.

The organic component of these samples will eventually be put through additional analyses to better constrain sediment origin and age. As scientists, we often rely on proxies to inform us about the nature of past processes. In this case, chemical signatures provide us with records of processes that shaped Plum Island’s past and present – and potentially other barrier islands like it! As Chris notes in the recent news article about our work, these cores provide a “vertical picture of how those horizontal ecosystems [barrier islands and marshes] moved or changed over time”.

In the coming weeks, we will provide updates on progress being made with these cores. Stay tuned for another picture gallery and greater detail on what we’re discovering about Plum Island’s past!

Plum Island Research Featured in Hampton Roads (VA) News

January 2, 2015 by Chris Hein

Gloucester Point, VA

The local newspaper here in Hampton Roads, VA published an article yesterday on the use of sediment cores by scientists at VIMS to study the geologic past. Our work on Plum Island was featured heavily, including in videos of myself explaining what these cores can tell us. You’ll see Claudia in the background, opening and processing some of the Geoprobe cores we collected on Plum Island back in May (you can see the full photo gallery from that trip here).

Check out the full article, photos, and video at the Daily News site: VIMS geologists use sediment cores as a window to the past

Happy New Year!

A Field Reminder of the Uniqueness of Plum Island

November 26, 2014 by Chris Hein

Williamsburg, VA

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work with several collaborators from the University of North Carolina on a study of overwash on a barrier island in New Jersey.

Overwash is the flow of water and sediment over the top of a barrier, generally during a storm. The result is widespread erosion of the beach and dunes, and the deposition (dumping) of that sand on the back (landward) side of the barrier island. This image, modified from the Department of Transportation (Figure 8.16 of:, shows this process well:


We were out on the Holgate Wildlife Refuge, located at the southern end of Long Beach Island, NJ. It is a location in some ways similar to Plum Island – a piece of a developed barrier island that is kept natural because it part of a refuge, this beautiful, 3.5 mile long stretch of beach is home countless birds and birders alike. We spent three very cold days collecting ~75 sediment cores with a handheld Geoprobe system and several miles of ground-penetrating radar profiles (see earlier posts on our use of these tools on Plum Island). This was part of a study to quantify the volume of sediment overwashed during a single event – Hurricane Sandy . . . or “Tropical Storm Sandy”, which it technically was when it struck the coast . . . or “Superstorm Sandy” which is what the media preferred.

Chris Hein and Laura Rogers collecting a handheld Geoprobe sediment core on Long Beach Island, NJ, in November 2014.

Chris Hein and Laura Rogers (a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill) collecting a handheld Geoprobe sediment core on Long Beach Island, NJ, in November 2014.


Long Beach Island was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Roads in the town of Beach Haven, immediately north of the refuge, were covered with as much as FOUR feet of sand by overwash. Many lost homes and businesses, and two years later, recovery continues in many ways. However, with the exception of a few gaps along the beachfront where houses were lost during the storm, most of the barrier island looks broadly similar to how it did before the storm.

Not so down in the Holgate Wildlife Refuge. Nearly the entire 3.5 miles of barrier was overwashed during the storm. Dunes were wiped out, the beach severely eroded, and literally tons of sediment was thrown onto the backside of the barrier.

This is a totally normal process on most barrier islands and it is how natural barriers maintain themselves in the face of rising sea levels. It is somewhat cannilbalistic – sand is moved from the front (ocean) side of the barrier to the back (landward) side of the barrier, eventually, over time and many storms, shifting the entire barrier landward. Barrier islands throughout the world have been doing this for thousands of years. Without human interference, most would still be doing so – just check out Long Beach Island on a map – the “natural” section of the beach located in the Refuge is sitting 500 yards landward of the developed area to the north. The Refuge section of the beach is migrating by overwashing . . . the developed section is not – in a matter of days after Sandy, bulldozers swarmed in and pushed all of that washover sand (again, 4′ covering most of the town) back onto the beach! This is certainly working in the short term, but over longer periods, the residents of Long Beach Island may have some difficult decisions to make.

An exception to this rule about natural barriers overwashing? Plum Island! No matter how bad the erosion experienced during storms on Plum Island, it does not overwash. In fact, our studies of Plum island show that it has experienced little to no overwash in the last 3000 years! The same is true for Castle Neck. Instead, on these barriers, we have HUGE dune systems (with forests . . . a little different than the picture of Long Beach Island, above). Why is this? The Merrimack River, as well as large reservoirs of sand offshore, which together provide a constant source of sediment for the beach. This is partially why we see phases of erosion and growth of the beach . . . but never wholesale migration of the barrier island.

I know this is of no consolation to those with houses in that front row on Plum Island, but working at Beach Haven was a phenomenal reminder to me of the power of the ocean and the fragility of our barrier islands . . . and how lucky we are to have a relatively stable and healthy barrier system at Plum Island.

I’ll post more on this fascinating comparison in a few months when we have more data worked up and some neat imagery to show.

In Remembrance

November 10, 2014 by Chris Hein

Gloucester Point, VA

I learned this morning that a friend of our project, and a great friend of science in general, passed away suddenly last week. Town of Newbury Selectman David Mountain was also a professor of biomedical engineering and otolaryngology at Boston University. A highly respected researcher and teacher, Dr. Mountain was a strong supporter of the need for science-based decision making as related to Plum Island. He was consistently encouraging of our work and always interested in the results of our team’s efforts.

I had known Dr. Mountain’s wife, Barbara Bereman, before I ever set foot on Plum Island as she was an administrator in the Boston University department where I received my PhD. My heart goes out to her and their two daughters.

A complete article in the Newburyport Daily News about Dr. Mountain’s life and his untimely passing can be found here.

Recent Posts

Relevant Article

February 18, 2017 - Williamsburg, VA       17 February 2017 NPR published today a very thought-provoking and relevant article (also heard on All Things Considered) about coastal erosion, climate change, […]

The Remarkable Stability of Plum Island

October 24, 2016 - Gloucester Point, VA       25 October 2016 I received an email yesterday from friend of the project and local science author Bill Sargent (author of this […]

A Mid-Autumn Update

October 23, 2016 - Williamsburg, VA       23 October 2016 The high temperatures finally fell below 80 degrees down here in Virginia and the leaves are maybe just starting to […]

Recent Library Uploads

More on the Stability of Plum Island (or the instability of Virginia barrier islands)

Posted: February 18, 2017
Gloucester Point, VA       18 February 2017 Back in the fall, I wrote about why Plum Island is so unique: it doesn’t move. It has been […]

Relevant Article

Posted: February 18, 2017
Williamsburg, VA       17 February 2017 NPR published today a very thought-provoking and relevant article (also heard on All Things Considered) about coastal erosion, climate change, […]

The Remarkable Stability of Plum Island

Posted: October 24, 2016
Gloucester Point, VA       25 October 2016 I received an email yesterday from friend of the project and local science author Bill Sargent (author of this […]

A Mid-Autumn Update

Posted: October 23, 2016
Williamsburg, VA       23 October 2016 The high temperatures finally fell below 80 degrees down here in Virginia and the leaves are maybe just starting to […]