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Center for


Environment & Society

CRS 240: The Natural Science of an Estuary

Course Topics

This course will explore the following topics. Some lecturers will be on campus, while others will be delivered while we are on the road.

  • Geology, coastal morphology and the formation of the Chesapeake Bay
  • Defining a watershed — scale, inputs, ecological variability
  • Physical estuarine oceanography — tides, wind and waves
  • Chemical estuarine oceanography - polarity, salinity, transmission of light, thermocline, halocline and salt wedges
  • Biological estuarine oceanography - distribution of life in the marine habitat, effects of waves on marine life
  • Introduction to estuarine life - invertebrate and vertebrate phyla
  • Estuarine productivity & community structure - primary productivity of algae, salt marshes and sea grass beds; top-down (predator) and bottom-up (primary production) control of marine communities.
  • Zonation in marine habitats - physical (environmental) & biological (predators & competition) factors
  • High energy habitats - rocks & pilings, sandy beaches, dunes & maritime forests
  • Salt marshes & mud flats
  • Oyster bars & sea grass beds
  • Contaminant cycling in the Chesapeake Bay (focusing on nutrient pollutants (N and P) from agricultural sources and N pollution from cars and industry which leads to acid rain)
  • Tools for benthic habitat assessment: remote sensing and ground-truthing
  • Soil chemistry, fertility and nutrient cycling
  • Succession and disturbance in marine habitat (changes in communities over time due to natural and man-made disturbances)
  • The science and impacts of climate change

Sample Activities

  • Field study on marine research vessel.
  • Trawl and sample for marine life.
  • Training session for water sampling and analysis
  • Collect water samples to gain an understanding of pollution in various parts of the Bay, in a “snapshot” approach. Measure dissolved O2, nitrate, phosphate, temperature, pH and do secchi disk readings on board. Bring home samples for other forms of nitrogen and phosphorus analysis. (In future could measure metals, if we obtain appropriate instrumentation.)
  • Collect water samples over time at three fixed locations; analyze as above
  • Collect soil samples from the farms visited during the agricultural portion of the course. Measure soil pH, plant-available phosphorus and nitrogen in the laboratory.
  • Remote sensing for benthic habitat assessment (sonar, fathometer, acoustic seabed classification, ROV assessment
  • Build an ROV — outline basic principles, provide kit and have teams build small ROVs for pool testing
  • Bird-watching — species enumeration, to assess the relationship between diversity and land use