Research and Monitoring

One of the core functions of the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve is to support and conduct high-quality research and monitoring with a focus on the Reserve’s mission to preserve and protect estuarine habitats within Narragansett Bay.  The NBNERR Research program seeks to develop and enhance cooperative partnerships and to integrate with other Reserve programs to conduct and disseminate original research in the Reserve throughout coastal Rhode Island.  In addition, the Reserve serves as a long-term platform for external scientific research that spans a variety of disciplines.

Research and Monitoring program focuses on:

1) ecology of salt marshes in the context of climate change and sea level rise,

2) implementing the System-wide Monitoring Program which includes long-term monitoring of water quality, nutrients and weather, and

3) supporting visiting researchers to the Reserve. 

SWMP program focuses on:

 NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) acknowledges the importance of both long-term environmental monitoring programs and data and information dissemination through the support of the NERRS System-wide Monitoring Program (SWMP). The goal of the SWMP is to “identify and track short-term variability and long-term changes in the integrity and biodiversity of representative estuarine ecosystems and coastal watersheds for the purpose of contributing to effective national, regional and site specific coastal zone management.” This comprehensive program consists of three phased components:
  1. estuarine water quality monitoring
  2. biodiversity monitoring
  3. land-use and habitat change analysis

Collaborative Projects:

Tidal marshes are facing tremendous pressures from climate change, including accelerated rates of sea-level-rise, increased storm activity and precipitation extremes, lengthened growing seasons and shifts in salinity regimes. Recent research within National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) sites has revealed striking changes in plant communities that seem to be caused by rising seas, including shifts toward more flood tolerant species, lower overall plant diversity, and in some cases growing swaths of bare ground. This project will leverage the Reserve System’s geographic diversity, nationally coordinated monitoring program, communication networks, and strong record of collaborative research to conduct a groundbreaking national study examining how marsh plant communities are responding to climate change. Learn more

Tidal marshes provide key ecosystem services, but are threatened by sea level rise. For these ecosystems to survive, it will require active management to increase tidal marsh resilience. Researchers at the Narragansett Bay and Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserves recently led the first national assessment of tidal marsh resilience to sea level rise to monitor coastal reserve sites across the continental United States. In this project, the group took the next step to test a strategy that can enhance tidal marsh resilience. Thin-layer placement (TLP) is an emerging climate adaptation strategy that mimics natural deposition processes in tidal marshes by adding a small amount of sediment on top of marsh in order to maintain elevation relative to sea level rise. It is one of the only viable strategies to protect tidal marshes in their current footprint. Learn more

Scientists from across the National Estuarine Research Reserve System have conducted the first-ever North American inventory of coastal wetland wildlife. Learn More

Visiting Researchers

National Estuarine Research Reserves are living laboratories and ideal sites for research and long-term monitoring. By understanding how estuaries function and change over time, scientists are in a better position to predict how coastal ecosystems will respond to climate change and natural and human-induced disturbances both locally and on a national level.

The Reserve provides numerous resources of potential benefit to visiting researchers.  These include a fully-furnished and functional overnight cottage available for a nominal daily fee, island transportation upon arrangement, lab and office space, and internet access.  For more information contact Kenny Raposa, Research Coordinator.

All visiting researchers are required to fill out an application for a permit to conduct research or monitoring in the Reserve, and to obtain proof of liability of insurance from their home institution.  

Additional Monitoring

The SWMP long-term abiotic monitoring program is successfully developing a large water quality and weather database over time making it possible to assess and study environmental changes in Narragansett Bay. Our efforts are directed towards obtaining high-quality data to study water quality trends and patterns of physical (temperature, salinity, turbidity, fluorescence) and chemical variables (pH, dissolved oxygen, ammonium, nitrate, nitrate, phosphates, silicates) that support scientific research, enhance public awareness and understanding of the Bay’s watershed and estuarine areas, and promote educated management decisions and regulations. Meteorological data collected (air temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, photosynthetic active radiation, and precipitation) are continuously used to complement and support the aforementioned water quality monitoring, in addition to biological monitoring efforts at the Reserve, to assist scientific research and monitoring projects, and for stewardship, training, and educational activities around Narragansett Bay.

After extensive quality assurance and quality control, SWMP water quality and weather data are available from NOAA-funded Centralized-Data Management Office.

Real-Time Data

The Real Time Data Application allows users to view near-real time water and weather data from any of the 28 Reserves within NERRS.  In addition, the user can look at real time gauges, and plot 24 hour graphs using one or multiple parameters. Each Reserve has at least one water quality station and one weather stations providing immediate, real-time information.  The following links will direct you to real-time water quality data from the T-Wharf Bottom and weather data from Potter Cove at the Reserve.

As part of SWMP, NBNERR also conducts biological monitoring in accordance with the NERR Sentinel Sites Application Module. The NBNER Sentinel Sites program focuses on using long-term monitoring and data collection to quantify responses of Reserve salt marshes to sea-level rise and increasing inundation. We have been collecting some of these data since 2000 and they are already showing that Reserve marshes are losing salt meadow plant communities, which are being replaced by low marsh vegetation that is more tolerant of flooding, and by die-off patches. Sea-level rise is identified as the likely driver of these changes (Raposa et al. 2015). Sentinel Site monitoring occurs annually and includes data for emergent vegetation, elevation, hydrology, and migration rates. Plans are now moving forward to expand this intensive Sentinel Site monitoring to additional marshes beyond the Reserve to examine marsh responses to sea-level rise across RI.

The Reserve generates maps of coastal and estuarine habitats of Narragansett Bay in order to track and evaluate how they are changing over time. Changes can occur at broad scales (e.g. the amount of impervious cover), which in turn can impact habitats as the local scale (e.g. the composition of habitats of Reserve salt marshes).

In addition to the Sentinel Sites salt marsh monitoring component of SWMP, the Reserve also conducts other biological monitoring in the Reserve and elsewhere around Narragansett Bay with its partners.  Monitoring is diverse in scope and topic, ranging from discrete or short-term surveys of macroalgae and seals to longer-term hierarchal submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) monitoring and mapping.  Brief summaries of select monitoring components are provided below; additional monitoring reports can be found here.

Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) is an important indicator of ecosystem health and knowing its extent and distribution is important for making informed coastal management decisions.  While a full-scale aerial assessment provides the most comprehensive data, it isn’t always possible because of the high cost and time commitment.  Therefore, the Reserve uses a rapid assessment approach using underwater video and statistical sampling protocols for efficiently and cost effectively mapping SAV within Reserve waters.

Despite the potentially important ecological and economic effects of invasive species, relatively little research and monitoring has been conducted on these species in Narragansett Bay.  This is true for the Asian shore crab, whose suspected distribution and high abundance in Narragansett Bay might have important effects on other estuarine species that live and forage in rocky intertidal habitats.

The goals of this project are to 1) quantify the distribution and density of Asian shore crabs throughout Narragansett Bay, RI, 2) quantify physical factors at each crab sampling site to help explain any observed patterns in crab distribution and abundance, and 3) assess the impact of this invasive crab to intertidal cobble beach communities.

Benthic infauna is also an excellent indicator of eutrophication and ecosystem health, yet these communities are not being monitored over the long-term in Narragansett Bay.  Although this program only started in 2010, it will provide excellent quantitative data over the long-term and allow for the assessment of community change over time.  These data will be useful for scientists and managers as they evaluate the ecological effects of large-scale reductions in nutrient inputs into Narragansett Bay that will go into effect in 2014.