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Groundwater and Coastal Hypoxia

Department: Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies
Professor: Patrick Hutchins

In July of 2004, Myrtle Beach fishermen were startled to encounter scores of flounder clustered in ankle-deep water along the shoreline of the Grand Strand. While the huge catch of flatfish may have been good news for anglers, the reason for this flounder jubilee, as it came to be called, was worrying: A “dead zone” of extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen in offshore waters had forced the animals towards land. Coastal Carolina University (CCU) led the effort to launch a massive investigation into the causes and repercussions of such an event, known as hypoxia (hypo=lack of, oxia=oxygen). To this day, research into hypoxic incidents is continued by scientists from several state agencies and universities, including CCU graduate student Patrick Hutchins.

Coastal hypoxia has been reported in hundreds of locations around the world, but the 2004 event was the first ever observed in the stretch of shoreline from Cape Fear to Georgetown known as Long Bay. The many and integrated scientific fields involved in the process make understanding coastal hypoxia exceedingly difficult, but faculty and students in CCU’s Cente r for Marine and Wetland Studies are spearheading the effort. Patrick is part of the Coastal Marine and Wetland Studies Master’s program, whose students study coastal issues with a multidisciplinary approach that brings together fields such as biology, chemistry, physical oceanography, and geology.

Patrick has teamed up with Dr. Richard Peterson to examine the potential contributions of groundwater inputs on the formation of hypoxic events. He is well-suited for investigating such phenomena thanks to his background in studying the influence of microbial processes on environmental conditions, a subject which first captured his interest during his sophomore year as a CCU undergraduate.

Many of the mechanisms surrounding coastal hypoxia are not completely understood, but one scenario occurs when an influx of nutrients or pollution (such as fertilizer or other organic material) stimulates a plankton bloom. When the plankton die, they are consumed by bacteria whose process of respiration uses up large amounts of available oxygen dissolved in the water,
leaving none for other sea-dwelling organisms. Specific patterns of temperature, water density, and wind further contribute to a reduction of oxygen in the water column.

Since no major rivers flow into the ocean at Myrtle Beach, the main source of nutrient and pollutant runoff into Long Bay remains a relative mystery. Groundwater and swashes (wetlands adjacent to the shoreline) are suspected to be primary conduits for nutrient exchange, especially in more urbanized or developed areas. Having secured over $37,000 worth of funding for his work from the Slocum-Lunz Foundation, the MK Pentecost Ecology Fund, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Patrick aims to evaluate the influence of these sources by adding water samples collected from these sites to pristine water and observing the change in phytoplankton and bacterial content.

By comparing runoff samples collected from developed and undeveloped sites, Patrick’s research may help reveal the source of the nutrients potentially influencing hypoxia. Such information is vital for coastal management and planning in the Myrtle Beach area. Controlling pollution off our shores through efforts such as education and stormwater management can have aesthetic,
economic, and health implications, which is why Patrick and the Coastal Marine and Wetland Studies program as a whole strive to bring us closer to understanding and predicting hypoxic events.

Patrick Hutchins
Photo: Patrick Hutchins processes water samples in the laboratory of Dr. Erik
Smith at the Belle W. Baruch Institute in Georgetown, SC

SC Sea Grant - Long Bay Hypoxia Working Group: http://www.scseagrant.org/Content/?cid=406
Long Bay Hypoxia Study at Baruch: http://nautilus.baruch.sc.edu/longbay/hypoxia/index.html
CMWS Home Page: http://www.coastal.edu/coastalstudies/index.php