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Overhead views of the University of South Carolina's Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences,  research facilities and marsh.

Window to the sea

Coastal research center offers students and faculty insight, experiences

The wooden sign on U.S. 17 for the Baruch Institute can easily be overlooked by the thousands of tourists who drive by it each year, heading north from Georgetown, South Carolina toward the resorts of Pawleys Island, Litchfield and Myrtle Beach.

Map of Baruch Institute location between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina

The University of South Carolina’s Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences conducts research and supports education to improve the management of marine and coastal resources and advance basic science for the well-being of people and their environment.

But for those who turn off the highway, the stunning beauty of the land comes quickly into focus. Native Americans called this land “hobcaw,” meaning “between the waters,” a nod to the peninsula bounded by Winyah Bay, the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1718 it became a colonial land grant known as Hobcaw Barony, and eventually was divided into plantations that were home to profitable rice fields until the years following the Civil War.

In the early 1900s, Bernard Baruch, a Wall Street financier, investor and philanthropist, set out to reassemble the 18th-century Hobcaw Barony and put the property to use as a retreat, hosting friends and family during the winter months. When his daughter Belle died in 1964, her will called for the land to be preserved for coastal research and education (see sidebar). Her vision led to the Baruch Foundation and the creation of the University of South Carolina’s Belle W. Baruch Institute for Coastal and Marine Sciences.

The 120 miles of Hobcaw’s dirt roads cut through stands of longleaf pines dotted with wild palmettos. They pass by research labs and dormitories, wooden boardwalks and water monitoring stations. Snowy egrets and white ibises soar overhead, while fiddler crabs and migrating shorebirds poke around in the low tide mud. The roads end at what is arguably the star of Hobcaw — the estuary. Miles of tidal creeks wind through the marshes and mudflats, leading to protected barrier islands and opening into North Inlet, Winyah Bay and the ocean.

Because of Belle Baruch’s wishes and the University of South Carolina’s commitment, the spot is a national treasure — a place where students and researchers from the Columbia campus along with universities around the world come to better understand the complexity of coastal and marine environments.

Salt marsh at Baruch Institute

Lay of the land

16,000 acres in Hobcaw Barony
6,000 acres of salt marsh and marsh islands
2 miles of undeveloped beachfront

“We can’t call it pristine — there’s not a truly pristine place on earth any more — but it is minimally impacted over time,” says Jay Pinckney, a marine ecologist and director of UofSC’s Baruch Institute. “That allows us to look at the way a natural system works. It’s a good reference to compare to systems that are impacted so we can look at the differences between the way a natural system is supposed to work and way impacted systems work today.”

That means the quality of the water and habitat in the watershed’s forests, salt marshes and tidal creeks is better than at other more developed spots along the coast, giving researchers a clear understanding of the workings of a salt marsh estuary and the impacts humans have on the environment. And because Baruch researchers have been methodically monitoring the site for more than 50 years, they have a perspective that allows them to detect changes in things like vegetation, water chemistry and the growth, reproduction and migration patterns of aquatic animals.

“It’s pretty special to come to a place where there’s a data set that goes back over four decades, where you can figure out what new questions to ask building on that foundation. That’s what a fair number of our visiting scientists and students come here to do,” says Bill Strosnider, director of the Baruch Marine Field Laboratory. “To answer a scientific question, you need to pin down a lot of the variables and the histories. That supporting information doesn’t exist too many places to the extent that it does here.”

The case of climate change

It’s an extensive operation. About 25 UofSC employees work at the Baruch Marine Field Lab and the Hobcaw Barony Discovery Center, and the university hosts more than 4,500 days of visits from scientists, educators and students each year. There are more than 79 ongoing research, monitoring and service projects involving about 123 faculty members from at least 30 institutions. That work has resulted in more than 2,000 articles and books based on the North Inlet estuary over the years, making it one of the most studied and best understood estuaries in the world.

It’s work that is especially important in today’s discussions of climate change, shedding light on what happens as waters warm and sea levels rise.

“It’s very clear the water in North Inlet is getting warmer, that the marshes are getting flooded more frequently and to a higher degree,” says Erik Smith, director of the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and an associate research professor at Baruch. “We’re beyond debating whether that’s a scientific fact. Now we can move into ‘OK, what are the impacts of that?’

“The work we do here really addresses those kinds of questions, serving the needs of society both in terms of understanding global changes and local changes as the coast of South Carolina continues to develop,” Smith says.

Research by University of South Carolina faculty and students has shown sea level has risen about 4 inches in the North Inlet estuary over the past 35 years. Shifting patterns of rainfall, storms and other factors related to climate change are affecting the salt marsh, habitats and animal populations there. Pine trees at the edge of the Hobcaw forest are dying, probably from elevated salt in the ground water. Long-term measurements show increase in water temperatures, believed to be at least partially responsible for declines in the size of zooplankton and fish populations that UofSC scientists have been studying since the 1970s.

“It’s a really rich database to mine for looking at changes, and we all know in today’s world, we’re going through some big changes,” Pinckney says. “We’re seeing sea level rise and temperature changes and changes in atmospheric CO2, all of those have biological consequences. We’ve been able to see a lot of those changes in the samples we’ve collected, even in a system that’s not had a significant urban impact.”

That comparison is important, Pinckney says, because changes in watersheds in places like Charleston Harbor, for example, may be attributed to nearby industry or other direct human impacts. “With the North Inlet estuary, it’s basically been the same for at least 100 years. So the changes we’re seeing there are not due to some local phenomenon, but more likely due to regional or even global types of changes,” Pinckney said. “It’s a nice indicator of bigger scale things going on as opposed to local problems in developed or industrialized watersheds.”

The Baruch Institute houses the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The NERR (pronounced “near”) is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and UofSC partnership that was established in 1992 and is dedicated to the conservation of the nearly 19,000 acres of tidal marshes and wetlands through research, stewardship and education. The reserve’s boundaries include North Island and portions of Winyah Bay in addition to Hobcaw Barony.

“It’s a tremendous place, with a tremendous set of resources and collection of expertise. There are only 29 national estuarine research reserves in the country and one of them is here. That adds another level of infrastructure and resources making this place special,” says Smith, who has been at Baruch for about 14 years and is now manager of the NERR. “There just aren’t many complete estuaries that are so minimally impacted. That phrase ‘living lab’ is a little overplayed, but the North Inlet estuary is a particularly good one to address those big picture global changes.”

The research missions of the Baruch Institute and the NERR are closely aligned, with the reserve also involved in providing opportunities for the public to get involved. NERR educators conduct field studies for K-12 students, provide teacher training workshops and offer short courses and public seminars on coastal topics. In addition, the NERR’s Coastal Training Program provides accredited trainings and technical assistance to local professional audiences, including elected and appointed officials within the region.

Research site in water

Global Impact

Studies have shown that because of the strong ocean influence and an undeveloped surrounding water-shed, the water and habitat quality are outstanding, making Hobcaw an ideal site to determine changes that come from global rather than local influences.

Enhancing the student experience

The presence of the Baruch Institute and the NERR is critical for a marine science program at a university like South Carolina, where the flagship campus is located in the middle of the state, more than 100 miles from the coast.

Researchers on boat

There are more than 79 ongoing research, monitoring and service projects involving about 123 faculty members from at least 30 institutions working at Hobcaw Barony. University of South Carolina researchers (from left) Bill Strosnider, Bruce Pfirrmann and Erik Smith aboard a boat in the North Inlet Estuary.

“We have to have a facility on the coast if we’re going to have a vibrant marine science program and attract faculty to come here and do marine-related types of research,” Pinckney says. “Some institutions have research ships that are their laboratories. Our research ship is Baruch.”

It’s also a draw for students interested in studying marine science and the coastal environment.

Eilea Knotts, who earned her doctorate in December, says the presence of the Baruch Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences was an important factor in her decision to attend UofSC. During more than five years of graduate school, she has spent summers teaching and working on research projects at Baruch, including studying fiddler crabs and microscopic algae that form the base of the aquatic food chain.

“I fell in love with Baruch,” Knotts says. “Living actually on-site and going back to the dorms, it provided a sense of community and a sense of camaraderie. We were all doing different things, all working on our own projects, yet we’re sharing a scientific experience together.”

Kelly McCabe, a graduate student who will earn her master’s in marine science in May, has spent the past two summers living and working at Baruch, doing research on stormwater runoff.

“(The Baruch Institute) allows me to be in the coastal area that I’m studying and it provided me with a lab space, equipment, and the vehicles I needed to conduct all that research,” McCabe says. “It also has a great set of on-site housing facilities and lab techs who are super wonderful and are always willing to help students.

“It’s a really great opportunity to get out into the field,” she says. “Not every place has something like Baruch.”

The laboratories, classrooms and estuary at Hobcaw are something undergraduate and graduate students in marine science and other disciplines are able to experience.

“I know there are multiple undergraduate labs in the School of Earth, Ocean and Environment that take students out to Baruch. It’s always a highlight of their UofSC experience ,” Knotts says. “This place is unique. Students maybe don’t realize it’s going to be an exciting opportunity until after the fact. They say, ‘OK, I’m here to do a lab.’ But as they go out into the real world, they will look back on this experience and go, ‘Wow, I’m so glad [the university] gave me that opportunity.’”

Video of students on boat, marsh grass, research and equipment, oyster being opened, and dolphins swimming in water.