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Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research Site

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Long-Term Drivers, State Change and Disturbance on the Virginia Coast Reserve: LTER V  (University of Virginia Main Campus)

Research Focus

At the Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, barrier islands are backed by salt marshes and shallow lagoons and separated from one another by deep inlets. Researchers at the site study how these coastal barrier systems respond to long-term changes in climate, sea level and land use and relate these to the ecological services the coastal barrier systems provide. They examine how slow, progressive environmental changes interact with short-term disturbances, such as storms and species invasions, to control the dynamics and biotic structure in the coastal barrier landscape.

Coastal barrier systems like the Virginia Coast Reserve are prominent features of shorelines on most continents and are important globally. This long-term research thus extends beyond the VCR and can both be applied broadly to coastal barrier systems and be compared to other types of land-margin ecosystems.

Twenty-six research sites constitute the NSF-sponsored LTER network. Geographically, they range from Alaska to Antarctica and from the Caribbean to French Polynesia, and they include agricultural lands, alpine tundra, barrier islands, coastal lagoons, cold and hot deserts, coral reefs, estuaries, forests, freshwater wetlands, grasslands, kelp forests, lakes, open ocean, savannas, streams and urban landscapes.

Research Outcomes

Since it began operation in 1987, the VCR LTER has conducted wide-ranging research with significant findings. Highlights include:

  • Bottom-dwelling plants and microbes control nutrient cycling in shallow coastal bays, contrary to expectations based on deep estuaries. This finding is helping scientists better predict how land-use change and eutrophication will impact these vulnerable ecosystems and the important fisheries and marine biodiversity they support.

  • Many species of waterbirds have declined considerably since the 1970s, in spite of pristine environmental conditions. Predation and climate-driven changes in habitat availability pose the most serious threats to these species.

  • Long-term studies show that two simple environmental factors--distance from the shoreline and elevation above sea level--determine patterns in barrier island vegetation. VCR scientists are using this knowledge to forecast climate change effects on these fragile coastal landscapes.

Education & Outreach

The goals of the VCR LTER's education program are to involve and excite local school kids and teachers about marine science in general and specifically about their local coastal barrier systems; reach a broader audience through web-based resources; and train undergraduate and graduate students through VCR research and involvement in national and internal collaborations.

VCR LTER works closely with local teachers and students and has forged new education collaborations with its partners at The Nature Conservancy and colleagues at Chesapeake Experience. The VCR's Schoolyard LTER program is focused on local high schools in Northampton County and supports curriculum development, teacher training and high school student summer research internships.

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  • aerial photo of salt marshes, red hue
Farmland surrounds the salt marshes and seagrasses of the Virginia Coast Reserve LTER site.
NSF Virginia Coast Reserve LTER Site