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Center for


Environment & Society

CRS 240: The Natural Science of an Estuary

This course is one of four courses that make up the Chesapeake Semester.  Here students explore topics such as geology, coastal morphology and the formation of the Chesapeake Bay, physical, chemical and biological estuarine oceanography, estuarine productivity and community structure, zonation in marine habitats, salt marshes and mud flats, oyster bars and sea grass beds, forest ecology,  and the science and impacts of climate change.  Some lecturers are on campus, while others are delivered while traveling. The course includes class, home, and field lab exercises designed to reinforce course content, introduces 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 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.
  • 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 foot hills of Appalachia to the Atlantic Ocean for geological context
  • Bird-watching — species enumeration, to assess the relationship between diversity and land use