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Center for

Environment & Society

CRS 240: The Natural Science of an Estuary

This course is one of four that make up the Chesapeake Semester. The course includes class, home, and lab exercises in the field designed to reinforce course content and introduce scientific thinking and training in data collection and analysis. It is designed to foster cross-disciplinary thinking with the Humanities and Social Science courses of the Chesapeake Semester.  A substantial amount of learning will take place in the field with particular design and focus around the second Journey, “Ridge to Ocean: Ecology and Geology of the Chesapeake.”

Course Topics

This course will explore the following topics. Some lectures 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.
  • Salt marsh exploration and sampling
  • Collect and analyze water samples to gain an understanding of pollution in various parts of the Bay
  • Collect and analyze sediments from the foothills of Appalachia to the Atlantic Ocean for geological context
  • Bird-watching — species enumeration, to assess the relationship between diversity and land use