Meredith Faculty Member Helps Discover New Barrier Islands

New research that found the Earth has 657 more barrier islands than previously known has a Meredith College connection.

Matthew Stutz, Meredith College assistant professor of geosciences since 2007, conducted this global survey with Orrin H. Pilkey, James B. Duke professor of geology at Duke University. The research, which was part of Stutz’s dissertation at Duke University, appears in the current issue of the Journal of Coastal Research.

The project is “a one-time snapshot of the world’s barrier islands,” Stutz said. “Islands break up and move. These images don’t tell you the history of the barrier islands – that is the piece that is missing.”

Stutz said the study is significant because barrier islands are important economically and environmentally.

His study, which took several years to complete, shows that barrier islands are found in virtually every geographic area on earth. Most of the islands identified are inhabited and most are likely several thousand years old, but haven’t been scientifically studied because they are in remote areas.

“I often felt adventurous; scanning every inch of shoreline seemed kind of exotic and interesting,” Stutz said.

Improved access to satellite imagery made the project possible. “All earlier coastal classifications had been done using much less accurate tools,” Stutz said. “Satellite images now available allowed us to make much more precise identification.”

The next step in this research is to try to identify what factors can be used to predict where barrier islands are vulnerable to climate change and rising sea level.

“We know that islands have disappeared in the past,” Stutz said. “Each island’s setting is different, and they won’t all react in the same way. We want to know what will happen, and what happened in the past is not necessarily predictive of what will happen in the future.”

The research has gained media coverage in news outlets around the world, including NPR, Discovery, The Christian Science Monitor and MSNBC.com.

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