One of Florida’s most precious resources is its water from the aquifer to the 8,436 miles of coastline, boarded by the Gulf of Mexico, the Straits of Florida, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Water is also a major player in the state’s economy, contributing $56 billion to the economy and generating 900,000 jobs according to a report from the Florida Oceans & Costal Resource Council. That’s why keeping it healthy is a focus of so much research throughout the state, including at UCF.
There are many threats from sea level rise and red tide to diseases afflicting creatures that are critical for keeping the ocean’s ecosystem balanced. What we discover at UCF will not only impact Florida’s future but could make a difference worldwide.
At UCF, researchers are studying a wide range of ways to improve ocean health, from patented soil that can remove up to 90% of pollutants from water that ends up in the ocean to saving sea turtles riddled with disease. Much of this work is being done through the university’s Sustainable Coastal Systems cluster and National Center for Integrated Coastal Research.
UCF is celebrating World Oceans Day — a United Nations designated day — by sharing some of the many UCF research studies underway. The UN declared June 8 World Oceans Day to raise awareness about the need to protect oceanic life and safeguarding its biodiversity, which are key in keeping waterways healthy.
Unlocking Sea Turtles Secrets
Kate Mansfield, associate professor in the biology department, is the director of the Marine Turtle Research Group. Her group’s main research endeavors include sea turtle biology, ecology, behavior and conservation from egg through adulthood. Through her team’s work, they are uncovering where sea turtles go during their “lost years,” which is critical to informing efforts to conserve the threatened and endangered animals. Researchers have also discovered new gene variants in sea turtle immune systems. With further inspection and study, they are hoping it could one day be the key to saving the sea turtles from fibropapillomatosis, a disease causing debilitating tumors to appear on their bodies.
Preventing Runoff Before It Becomes a Problem
Bold and Gold is patented biosorption activated media that can safely remove up to 90% of pollutants from water. Invented by Martin Wanielista, a Pegasus Professor, professor emeritus, and professor of engineering, and Ni-Bin Chang, a professor of civil, environment, and construction engineering, the special soil is a solution to polluted stormwater runoff and wastewater in Florida. The UCF-created water filtration media and systems have contributed to pollution control in groundwater, which ultimately impacts coastal or ocean waters. Bold and Gold has been licensed to numerous partners and is manufactured exclusively by Environmental Conservation Solutions, LLC (ECS) in Apopka, Florida. Previously, the filtration technology has been applied to green roofs throughout the state, including Downtown Disney’s iconic tropical lemongrass green roof above the Starbucks.
Finding Ways to Combat Red Tide
Kristy Lewis, an assistant professor of biology in the National Center for Integrated Coastal Research, researches the ecology of natural and anthropogenic induced disturbances on estuarine and marine food webs and coastal communities. She leads the Lewis Lab of Applied Coastal Ecology. In one arc of her research, she and her students work to combat the threat of red tide on marine life. Red tides, caused by harmful algae called Karenia brevis, have caused widespread deaths of fish, shellfish, seabirds, and marine megafauna (sea turtles, manatees, and dolphins) along Florida’s coast every year. Her team is currently testing red tide control and mitigation strategies and evaluating the impacts of these technologies on the broader environment and marine food web. Their goal is to ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease.
Recently, Lewis’ team conducted a large-scale test of a red tide mitigation technology called clay flocculation that was performed in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory. The team used 6-foot wide “test tubes” that extend from the waters’ surface to the ocean floor — allowing them to test real ocean conditions within a controlled setting.
Protecting Florida’s Manatees
Graham Worthy is the director and co-cluster lead of UCF’s National Center for Integrated Coastal Research, also known as UCF Coastal. He is a Pegasus Professor and currently serves as chair of the Department of Biology. He is also the director of the Physiological Ecology and Bioenergetics Lab (PEBL), which is a part of UCF’s Conservation of Biology program. Worthy’s personal research has focused on understanding marine ecosystem function, and ultimately ocean health. He studies interrelationships between different species and how they respond to natural and human induced changes. Some of his research projects have included trying to understand cold-related deaths of West Indian manatees, despite Florida’s typically hot weather. PEBL has also researched annual manatee patterns and behaviors as well as possible warm-water refugia, both natural and industrial, that can be ranked by terms of usages during cold months.
Oysters: Nature’s Water Filters
Linda Walters, a Pegasus Professor of biology, focuses her research on understanding how humans have negatively impacted coastal systems, as well as collaborating with numerous UCF, community and agency partners to understand how humans can restore functionality to these same systems. As lead of the UCF Coastal & Estuarine Ecology Laboratory, Walters centers her work in the Indian River Lagoon and is studying invasive species, microplastics, and how rising minimum winter temperatures are resulting in increased mangrove colonization on intertidal oyster reefs. In 2018, she launched her new research in the Indian River Lagoon to comb all 156 miles for water samples, sediment samples and checking oyster beds for microplastics. Previously, they had already found record-breaking quantities of microplastic per shellfish species on the entire globe. Her group is also examining a new technique to re-establish oysters in the Indian River Lagoon that involves using a mesh made out of potato chips. This summer, Walters and Mansfield are leading a group of 11 biology faculty plus one engineer faculty member in UCF’s newest Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Under their mentorship, students will be able to study nesting turtles, restore oyster reefs with biodegradable materials, research amphibian diseases, examine fish abundance and diversity, among other topics.
Planning and Protecting for Storm Surges, Sea Level Rise
Thomas Wahl, assistant professor of civil, environmental and construction engineering, is the lab director of Coastal Risks & Engineering (CoRE) Lab at UCF. His major research interests are oceanography, hydrology, meteorology and climatology. His team studies change in coastal sea levels (mean and extreme), ocean waves, and freshwater flows and the associated impacts on built infrastructure to support the development of sustainable and resilient adaptation strategies. In a new study published Nature, his team has developed a method to determine the likely locations of extreme storm surges. Findings from the research will help place flood-protection resources, such as larger sea walls or larger pump stations, where they are needed most. The work expands on Wahl’s research into coastal changes, including examining nuisance floodingand better understanding storm surges and factors related to them, such as large-scale climate variability. He’s also part of a new $20 million U.S. National Science Foundation-funded megalopolitan coastal project to create decision-making frameworks to support coastal communities.
Using Technology to Respond to Crisis
Claire Connolly Knox is an associate professor and founding director of the master’s in emergency and crisis and management Program in UCF’s School of Public Administration. She is an expert on environmental vulnerability and disaster response, coastal resiliency and cultural competency. Knox’s interdisciplinary research, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, has recently found that social media can be a powerful tool for cities to communicate and to collect information during emergencies to effectively deploy disaster resources. Knox studied social media’s role during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and found that many counties struggled with managing the large influx of information. Other counties manually operated social media sites, redirecting the public to one or two managed social media pages for consistent messaging. This helped to control rumors and misinformation. While local governments are increasing their use of social media during disasters, expanding beyond Facebook and Twitter to other platforms, the primary goal hopes to provide correct and vital information to the public.
Coastal Wetlands for Climate Mitigation
Lisa Chambers is an associate professor of biology and is the director of the Aquatic Biogeochemistry Lab. Her lab has received research funding from NSF, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Transportation. Primarily, Chambers’ research focuses on the biogeochemical cycling of elements in the environment that are vital for life, especially carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Some of her work includes understanding how coastal ecosystems are changing and the role they play in storing carbon that can otherwise contribute to global climate change. Coastal soils and sediments are a large carbon sink, and Chambers seeks to understand how human activities can help or hurt the ability of these ecosystems to sequester carbon and removal other pollutants, such as nutrients that contribute to harmful algae blooms.
Safe Sunscreen for People and Aquatic Life
John Fauth, associate professor of biology, is researching quantitative and experimental ecology, with special emphasis on amphibians and reptiles, wetlands, and coral reefs. In 2015, Fauth was a member of an international team that reported oxybenzone, an ingredient commonly found in sunscreen, is toxic to coral reefs. In 2018, the island Republic of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean was the first nation to ban environmentally harmful sunscreens as a result of Fauth’s research. The ban became effective in 2020. Fauth’s research has encouraged six other countries to follow suit in the hazardous sunscreen ban in efforts to protect marine life.
Keeping an Eye on Fish Inventories
Michelle Gaither, assistant professor of biology, employs an interdisciplinary approach combining genomic tools with field-based studies to address one of the oldest yet still hotly debated questions in biology: How do species form and specifically what are the roles of geographic isolation, ecological differentiation and selection in the diversification of marine fishes? Additionally, her lab, Gaither Lab, is optimizing environmental DNA protocols to identify patterns of biodiversity in several groups, from fishes to plankton, to study species distributions and evaluate anthropogenic impacts on marine ecosystems. In 2021, Gaither’s team, in a study of the public databases, found that much of the vital metadata, such as date and time of collection and the details of sampling location were missing from the world’s largest repository of raw genomic sequences. These metadata are crucial for monitoring changes in the genetic diversity of wild populations over time and the missing data will hamper conservation efforts.
The threats to ocean and Florida’s coastlines are real. That’s why in2015 UCF launched the Sustainable Coastal Systems Cluster. It brought together an interdisciplinary group of faculty members to find solutions. In 2018 UCF Coastal launched to expand that work.
“The threats and challenges Florida faces are the same that coastal communities around the world face,” Worthy says. “UCF Coastal is working to combat these issues through dedicated work done by a team of interdisciplinary researchers and scientists.”
Together, our scientists help bring the aim of World Oceans Day — sustainable oceans for future generations to enjoy — one step closer to reality.