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A ‘model’ approach to studying coastal ecosystems

by Greg St. Martin of news@Northeastern

In the Pacific North­west, beach grass com­mu­ni­ties often create sand dunes that mit­i­gate coastal ero­sion and flooding risks stem­ming from rising sea levels caused by cli­mate change.

But Tarik Gouhier, a newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Earth and Envi­ron­mental Sci­ences in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, says this vital ecosystem ser­vice pro­vided to coastal com­mu­ni­ties may be in jeop­ardy. The reason, he says? An inva­sive beach grass species native to the East Coast of North America that builds infe­rior dune struc­tures owing to its shorter stature and lower density.

Gouhier, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with col­leagues at Oregon State Uni­ver­sity and Yale, has devel­oped math­e­mat­ical models that high­light the poten­tial impact of this inva­sive species on the ecosystem ser­vices pro­vided by res­i­dent beach grass com­mu­ni­ties in the Pacific Northwest.

“Whether this inva­sive species prop­a­gates and impacts coastal com­mu­ni­ties is a big con­cern,” said Gouhier, a quan­ti­ta­tive ecol­o­gist. “These beach grass com­mu­ni­ties pro­vide an alter­na­tive to building arti­fi­cial struc­tures such as sea walls to deal with rising sea levels.”

Studying this inva­sive beach grass species in its native habitat on the East Coast is among the projects Gouhier will focus on at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass. His overall research will focus on inte­grating ele­ments from the fields of non­linear dynamics, spa­tial ecology and food-​​web net­work theory to under­stand the assembly, sta­bility and func­tioning of coastal ecosys­tems expe­ri­encing envi­ron­mental change.

This research, he explains, is broad in scope: from studying the fac­tors that explain the spa­tiotem­poral dis­tri­b­u­tion of mus­sels — a foun­da­tional member of inter­tidal ecosys­tems that set­tles on rocks and pro­vides a home for other organ­isms — to building math­e­mat­ical models that help manage fish­eries and other invalu­able marine resources via net­works of reserves.

Gouhier counts ecology and com­puter sci­ence as two of his long­time pas­sions. Nature, the self-​​described “geek” said, is “com­plex and beau­tiful.” He real­ized that he could com­bine his inter­ests after his doc­toral adviser at McGill Uni­ver­sity pointed out that ecology is a highly quan­ti­ta­tive field.

“There was lots of math every­where,” Gouhier recalls his advisor explaining. “You can build mech­a­nistic models to under­stand the pat­terns that you see in nature. For me, that was absolutely the ‘eureka’ moment.”

Gouhier noted that the MSC was a major factor in attracting him to North­eastern. The research facility, he said, is well posi­tioned to suc­ceed owing to its close prox­imity to a major urban city (Boston) and boasts a strong inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of researchers assem­bled and sup­ported by Col­lege of Sci­ence dean Murray Gibson and MSC director Geoff Trussell.

Gouhier is eager to build new inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tions with researchers at North­eastern and beyond. “These prob­lems require a cross-​​disciplinary approach. You need policy, you need to involve man­age­ment, you need to involve the public and you need fun­da­mental sci­ence,” he said. “Most research tends to focus on a single facet of envi­ron­mental change, but there’s pre­cious little work done to link key results across tra­di­tional dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries and com­mu­ni­cate them to the public at large.”

He added, “By com­bining exper­tise from dif­ferent fields, inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research pro­grams can address such com­plex prob­lems by allowing the sci­ence to directly inform policy deci­sions and out­reach activities.”

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