TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS OF RESEARCH
Early wildlife research in the aftermath of Hugo was done by now-retired faculty member Gene Wood, who sought to understand the effects of the hurricane on Hobcaw’s wildlife populations, notably red-cockaded woodpeckers, deer, wild turkeys, feral swine and fox squirrels.
“Dr. Wood had a technician whose job was quite literally to get up every morning in the dark, go out to a particular nest tree where he would have to wait for the bird to come out and then follow them through the woods and, through binoculars as best he could, record what they were eating and where they were,” says George Askew, then Baruch Institute director and now Clemson’s vice president for Public Service and Agriculture. “We did not have a lot of fancy dollars to do fancy stuff. It was all extremely old school.”
That type of old-school science suited Conner just fine, and through a grant from the U.S. Forest Service in Charleston, he set about installing research plots on the Baruch property — three that had been hit hard by Hugo and one control site with the aim of understanding saltwater intrusion. The question, specifically: How much salt does it take to affect vegetation?
Even now, though the research was published in 1992, he can rattle off the figures for specific tree species without blinking: “The bald cypress are pretty much the last tree species to go in this process of increasing sea level and saltwater concentration. Even at that, the cypress are severely stressed at as low as 2 parts per thousand and by 4 parts per thousand are on their way out to be replaced by marsh or open water.”
Clemson forest ecologist Charles Gresham and hydrologist Tom Williams set to work studying the Hobcaw systems that were still in place, and Gresham ultimately put together a system of forest inventory and plots both on Hobcaw and on corresponding plots across the state where the hurricane had left its mark.
After Gresham retired, associate professor and forest scientist Bo Song took over the project as principal investigator. Her team has continued working on data collection both in the field and using remote sensing derived data.
With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Gresham and Song’s monitoring of coastal forests has continued for 27 years, producing 16 peer-reviewed publications and 10 presentations at professional conferences or to the public. The research not only provides insights to the long-term recovery of natural forest ecosystems after major disturbances but also contributes knowledge on the potential effects of global climate change on coastal forest structure.
“Knowing how coastal forests respond to major hurricanes in the long term and short term will aid us in preparing for future hurricanes and for potential changes in disturbance regimes,” Song says.
This examination of almost three decades of recovery trends of five forest types from four sites after Hurricane Hugo — focused primarily on forest composition, structure and species change — has added to the understanding of the long-term impacts that hurricanes may have on temperate forest ecosystems.
Effectively, research conducted at the Baruch Institute has built a knowledge base for the study of saltwater intrusion, sea level rise and hurricane impact on coastal forests where one did not exist before.
Perhaps more importantly, it has laid the groundwork for generations of future hurricane work by filling in knowledge gaps on forest recovery that can help inform the conservation and management of coastal landscapes that are essential to the environmental health and economic prosperity of the South Carolina Lowcountry and its citizens.
“Our mission is to provide scientific research that supports sustainable coastal resource management,” says Skip Van Bloem, professor and Baruch Institute director. “To understand sustainable management, you have to understand how large disturbances will affect coastal environments and then how management decisions should be made in response to those and also in preparation for that.”