Auburn-led team studies land use, forest cover change to protect Gulf Coast waters

Auburn researchers to forecast how changing land use along Gulf Coast will impact water quality
Published: November 12, 2020
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Hurricane Michael in 2018 spread a trail of destruction throughout the Florida panhandle and beyond, significantly altering forest cover in the region. In the wake of that catastrophic event, an Auburn University researcher has embarked on an extensive study of the effects of land use change to develop management tools that will help preserve and protect the area’s coastal water quality and aesthetics.

Chris Anderson, a professor of wetland ecology in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, is leading a team of colleagues from Auburn as well as researchers from the University of South Alabama and the University of Georgia in a multiyear study of several watersheds along the Gulf of Mexico, ranging from Alabama to the Florida panhandle.

The multidisciplinary team of ecologists, hydrologists and climate scientists is working with social scientists to understand how land decisions made by landholders and stakeholders may contribute to changes in forest cover, water quality and, eventually, coastal environments.

The scale of the project, which focuses on watershed drainages to Wolf Bay and Perdido Bay in Alabama to St. Andrews Bay in Florida, is extensive.

“We targeted this region because it’s an area that is undergoing substantial change for various reasons,” Anderson said. “We are looking at drainages that include much of the coastal counties of Alabama and west Florida where large-scale land use changes are occurring, and recent events have reduced forest cover in the region further.”

“All of this can eventually affect the coastal water quality in an area that is known for its clean, beautiful beaches and healthy bays,” he said. “Forested lands are known to support good water quality. The primary goal of our project is to determine future land use trends and, by applying existing models, identify potential threats to future coastal water quality. The project will ultimately generate information that can be used to plan, protect and preserve these coastal gems.”

The intent of the study, which began in September, is to produce an extensive planning and analysis tool that will be developed in partnership with various state and local government planners, the forest and agriculture industry and others involved and interested in preserving the coastal water quality of the region.

“Though there are some coastal towns and cities within the designated study area, much of the watershed draining to the coast is rural and forested,” Anderson said. “This team aims to find out how climate and various socioeconomic factors may alter decisions made by landowners, which may ultimately reduce forest cover along the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Using regional watersheds along the northern Gulf of Mexico, we hope to understand the extent of future forest loss and how it may alter drainage patterns and water quality to important ecosystems along the coast,” Anderson said.

The project, funded by the Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, will develop a framework that includes 30-year land use and land cover scenarios to predict future coastal ecosystem conditions.

“In order to make informed decisions that ensure the U.S. Gulf Coast region remains resilient—and habitable—for future generations, we need to understand much better the connections between natural processes and human activities in the region,” said Laura Windecker, program officer for the Gulf Research Program. “This grant opportunity encourages research that is actionable to help conserve our valuable ecosystems, while also protecting people’s health and livelihood.”

Anderson is joined in this project by fellow Auburn researchers Kelly Dunning, Latif Kalin, Wayde Morse, Richard Hall and Sanjiv Kumar, University of South Alabama researcher John Lehrter and University of Georgia researcher Puneet Dwivedi.

Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Dean Janaki Alavalapati said this forward-looking research is vital to the preservation of coastal regions.

“Dr. Anderson and his team are doing work that will yield information that is critical to securing and sustaining these vulnerable areas and the water quality they provide,” Alavalapati said.

The Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences is a flagship institution for natural resources-based degrees including natural resource management, geospatial and environmental informatics, and sustainable biomaterials and packaging. The school is also the backbone to Alabama’s $24 billion forest, wildlife, and natural resources industry. Its mission is to create future professionals and leaders, to develop new knowledge and science-based solutions, and share them with individuals, families, communities, and industries so that they can make informed decisions to advance their business and well-being.