Soil Science: The Real Dirt Behind Coastal Resilience

Just another day on the job for Jim Turenne, Rhode Island's Assistant State Soil Scientist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Credit: Soil Survey Staff

Just another day on the job for Jim Turenne, Rhode Island’s Assistant State Soil Scientist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Credit: Soil Survey Staff

Beneath mountains and lakes, oceans and valleys, a treasure trove of hidden information is waiting to be discovered within the Earth’s soils. Jim Turenne has been unearthing and cataloging this valuable data since 1987, when he began working on county soil surveys in Massachusetts as a field soil mapper for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS – a federal agency formerly known as the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. The NRCS works with private landowners to maintain, enhance and conserve their natural resources but they also have a close-working, collaborative partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Today, Turenne serves as Rhode Island’s assistant state soil scientist. Most of his work in Rhode Island has involved collecting coastal and submerged soils data. Turenne works closely with the Service on a number of coastal resilience projects, including  Protecting Property and Helping Coastal Wildlife, an effort to strengthen natural areas to act as buffers against storms and sea-level rise. The project is among 31 FWS coastal resilience projects supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery. Through the Service’s MapCoast Partnership (an organization dedicated to mapping coastal underwater resources) the Service gains invaluable soil data sometimes necessary for resilience work and NRCS gets to add that same information in their collective database.

Jim Turenne holds up a peat sample from what was a freshwater cedar swamp – now a tidal system and pond. Credit: Soil Survey Staff

Jim Turenne holds up a peat sample from what was a freshwater cedar swamp – now a tidal system and pond. Credit: Soil Survey Staff

As part of the Protecting Property and Helping Coastal Wildlife projectTurenne collected core soil sample data from the Narrow River in Narragansett, R.I. at John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge. One of the project goals is to build up marsh elevations along certain areas of the Narrow River to help compensate for a loss of sediment from storm and wave erosion, which leaves the marsh vulnerable to the effects of sea-level rise. Prior to dredging, soil samples were collected by Turenne and his team in site-specific locations to protect any possible cultural resources – or heritage assets – that might be hidden within soil layers. Core samples were also taken to determine if the wetland marsh soil could withstand the weight of 2-3 inches of sediment (dredge material) needed to successfully build up the marsh site.

Living shoreline project, oyster reefs, John H. Chafee NWR Credit: Amber Lira/FWS

A living shoreline project at John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge in Narragansett, R.I. using the technique of oyster reefs to buffer storm impact, strengthening the marsh. To determine marsh soil stability, Turenne would collect soil data from a site like this prior to construction. Credit: Amber Lira/FWS

Other resilience projects, such as the use of man-made oyster reefs to bolster natural shoreline protection, sometimes require soil sample collection before on the ground construction begins. Consider an oyster reef needed on a marsh site where very little is known about the soil composition. If tested beforehand, the soil sample results can help determine whether the weight of the oyster reef will be supported by the soils there. An oyster reef placed on a site where the soil cannot support its weight will cause the shells to sink into the mud, resulting in a less-effective natural buffer. The Service relies on soil sample studies to ensure living shorelines will stay in place, protecting the coast for years to come.

“It’s a privilege to be a part of the Sandy recovery effort and to help provide a strong foundation for communities and nature to better withstand future storms.” -Jim Turenne, Rhode Island assistant state soil scientist

Click here to view a short video from the WNBC WJAR 10 Watershed Watch Report, featuring Rhode Island Mapping Partnership for Coastal Soil and Sediment (www.mapcoast.org) Video courtesy of www.turntoten.com

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