Water Over the Bridge

By Alyssa LaFaro, Endeavors

From the competitive ports of China, to the innovative flood gates of the Netherlands, to the shifting sands of the Outer Banks, the sea creeps farther up the coastline every single day, and the distance between the top of the water and the bottom of bridges decreases — a major issue for port economies. UNC American studies professor Rachel Willis searches for solutions to help these communities cope with the impact of sea-level rise.

Orange traffic cones surround a fluorescent yellow-garbed construction worker on NC-12. He raises his hand perpendicular to the roadway, signaling to slow down with a weathered red stop sign. As cars speed past in the left-hand lane, enormous cranes on ocean barges lift heavy beams onto a bridge being built alongside the existing one.

Hurricane impact sidebarMore than 14,000 vehicles cross the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge every day — a lifeline for the people of Ocracoke and Hatteras islands, connecting them to the Northern Outer Banks. Below the bridge, tides from the Atlantic Ocean push into the widening Oregon Inlet, breaking through to the Pamlico Sound.

The Bonner Bridge Replacement Project began on March 8, 2016. The new structure is designed to withstand 100 years of ocean currents, built with high-durability concrete and reinforced stainless steel. But it comes after years of failed attempts to create a durable bridge and countless arguments over environmental concerns.

Constant beach erosion, severe weather, and high traffic volumes have regularly compromised the state of this roadway since its completion in 1963. In 1990, in the middle of the night, a state trooper watched a dredge collide with the bridge during a brutal nor’easter, causing 400 feet of roadway to collapse into the waves below. For three-and-a-half months, Hatteras Island could only be accessed by boat or plane. In 2013, safety concerns closed the bridge for 12 days when routine sonar scanning showed that substantial sand erosion had compromised the support structure. And in the summer of 2017, construction crews struck major underground electrical cables, knocking out power to Ocracoke and Hatteras islands for weeks.

Since the bridge’s original construction, more than $300 million has been spent to protect and repair it.

Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar Rachel WillisRachel Willis watches the bridge construction from the water’s edge on Hatteras Island. She sighs.

“The ocean wants to open that inlet,” she says. “But we have put all this development and coastal infrastructure in a fixed place — and nature keeps taking it back. How are we preparing to protect the people in these communities? How can we make them less vulnerable? The answer is not ignoring the signs that nature gives us.”

Willis, a professor of American studies, global studies, economics, and a Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar, researches the intersection of transportation infrastructure and sea-level rise.

How does a labor economist end up studying climate change? The answer is not one you’d expect: socks.

Knitting global social fabric

In the early 1990s, Willis and students compiled data from every child care center in North Carolina — research that contributed to the development of Smart Start legislation. In 1994, while presenting this research at a conference, she met a sock manufacturer who would eventually introduce her to Dan St. Louis, an industry specialist who created training programs to help factories better communicate with employees and help workers become better contributors.

Over the next 10 years, Willis followed the lifecycle of socks around the world. She traveled to Italy to learn where the machines were manufactured, to China to understand business practices of the United States’ soon-to-be biggest competitor, and to the Czech Republic to see where all the Soviet Union sock-knitting machines were made. In North Carolina, she visited more than 200 sock factories and interviewed thousands of workers, owners, supervisors, and suppliers, among other people in the industry.

But it wasn’t just about socks.

“A sock is circular knitting — what goes around comes around,” she says. “Following these complex knitting patterns around the world showed how everything is connected. The purpose of this research was, really, to find out the future of manufacturing, which was obviously declining in the United States. It quickly became clear that cost-effective land transportation was vital to global competitiveness.”

By land or by sea?

When you drive into Morehead City, you can follow the train tracks all the way to the port thanks to the city’s namesake John Motley Morehead, who, as governor, oversaw their construction in the 19thcentury. Today, boats still arrive at the port and directly load goods onto the trains, which make deliveries to local factories and villages along the corridor.

But this kind of infrastructure is the exception. “We’ve undervalued trains as a transportation method in this country,” Willis says. “It’s all about the interstate system here.”

Here’s why Willis believes the nation must put goods on railcars and then get railcars to ports: It costs about 80 cents per mile to move one metric ton of freight on an airplane. It costs 27 cents to move it by truck. It costs 2 cents by rail. “It costs one penny by water — and also by pipeline,” Willis stresses. These numbers don’t just represent product cost — they are a proxy for the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere to move goods around the planet.

The search for a solution

Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar Rachel Willis bikingThe Dutch have a famous saying: “God built the world, but the Dutch built Holland.” About one-fifth of the Netherlands lies below sea level and 60 percent is vulnerable to flooding — startling statistics that the Dutch have learned to live with. Unlike most of the world, they have always worked to maintain a symbiotic relationship with the water.

Willis has always been fascinated by Dutch resiliency. And with good reason.

In the 13th century, they were already reclaiming land through the construction of dykes after flooding. Two hundred years later, the invention of the rotating turret windmill not only pumped water out of permanently flooded lands — it provided an energy source. Fast-forward to 1852, when the Dutch government reclaimed the land that is now Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. They spent the next century taking land back from the sea and, in the 1980s, began the largest land reclamation project and erected the grandest flood barrier that the world has ever seen.

The barrier, called Maeslantkering, is equivalent in size to two Eiffel Towers placed horizontally on the water in the Hook of Holland. In 2015, Willis decided she had to go see it for herself. To get there from Amsterdam, she hopped on a wind-powered train (all Dutch trains are powered by wind) and headed to the Hook of Holland, where she rented a bike to complete the rest of the journey.

“I biked along the road between the shipping canal and the new high-capacity wind turbines that are powering all their trains,” she says. “It was amazing to see how you can take problems like high winds and turn them into solutions.” She also took a tour of the barrier and got to see firsthand the complex interactions of moving freight transportation.

“If you’re looking for an insane field trip, go see where these solutions are in full force,” she advises. Another great example, according to Willis, is the Thames Barrier— which prevents Greater London from high tides and storm surges moving up the North Sea. Stretching 1,700 feet across the Thames, the barrier’s 10 steel gates remain flush with the river floor until a threat of high tide — and then they’re rotated upward, to the height of a five-story building, to block rising waters from entering the city. The whole process takes anywhere from 75 to 90 minutes.

“In 2013 alone, the barrier was used 50 times,” Willis says. Since its completion in 1984, the barrier has raised its gates nearly 180 times.

A wonder of the modern world

Although the Dutch continued to pump water from land in the 20th century, they still encountered problems from flooding. The North Sea Flood of 1953, for example, killed more than 2,000 people and put more than 370,000 acres of land underwater. In response, the government began Delta Works, a series of construction projects involving dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers to secure and protect the deltas of the southwest Netherlands.

In addition, at Maasvlakte 2, they’ve built ports and shipping facilities on reclaimed land that doesn’t conflict with people living in nearby communities. “The Dutch spend the same percentage of their national income on infrastructure related to water management as the U.S. spends on military,” Willis says. “Because fighting the water is their national defense.”

That’s why Willis headed to the Netherlands again this past summer — to speak with experts in engineering, infrastructure, and regional planning. In recent years, the Dutch have refocused their efforts on engineering with nature to provide coastal protection. In 2011, they used 21 million cubic meters of sand to form a hook-shaped peninsula called the “sand engine,” which enables the forces of the ocean to deposit sand along the North Sea coast.

Willis realizes that these solutions are not financially possible for most of the world’s coastlines including India, Brazil, and even regions of the United States. “The costs are astronomical for all but the wealthiest communities and countries,” she says. “They are simply not in the community’s budget, much less the national or global budget.” The physical resources needed to develop these solutions are also in short global supply, she points out.

Optimism and education

Approximately 50 percent of the world’s population will live within 30 miles of the coast by 2050, according to Willis. What does this mean for neighborhoods, for families that live by the water’s edge? How do we prepare people for threats from more intense storms? Even more importantly, what happens to humans in places that are at-risk now, in places like the Maldives, Vietnam, and the Outer Banks?

“I have great optimism about finding solutions,” Willis says. “Because I’ve seen extraordinary examples of them.” She stresses that working toward solutions involves seeing the whole picture.

“Our goals are not American — our goals are global. That means continuing to travel to see how other countries are adapting to rising sea levels and more frequent flooding. Because the problem is not going away. It’s water over the bridge. These destructive flooding events are going to be more severe and more frequent as time goes on. We have to have a better plan, and our first step is educating people on why we need to move back from the water. We need to look at infrastructure in the short run that is adaptable to these flood waters, but we need to use policy and incentives to stop building at the edge.”

Rachel Willis is a professor of American studies, global studies, and economics within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. She is a Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholar.

APPLES service-learning course is CURE-ious Chemistry

By Alyssa LaFaro, 

APPLES research service-learning course Carolina Campus Community GardenMadeline Cooke squats in the dirt and leans over the stacked, wooden two-by-fours supporting a raised garden. Scissors at the ready, she trims away weeds and checks the health of rows of red-stemmed succulents. Although many might consider this jade-like plant — called purslane — a weed, it’s actually edible, often found in Asian soups, salads, and stews. And it’s packed with antioxidants.

Cooke, a UNC senior majoring in chemistry, spent six months last year helping organic chemistry professor Nita Eskew tend to these weedy plants so she could use them in her “Chemistry of Purslane” class. A Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience(CURE), the class provides many students with their first active research experience.

APPLES research service-learning courser CURE“Some students don’t have the opportunity to do undergraduate research while they’re here, so this gives them the experience while also getting course credit,” Eskew explains. “I also wanted to get some type of chemistry research going in an undergrad lab course so students would have some purpose in their experiment other than making crystals and throwing them in the waste jar and walking out.”

Organic chemistry can be a little obscure, admits Eskew, so a course that highlights real-world applications draws more student attention. “It’s helpful to have something more concrete you can put your hands on,” says Eskew, adding that the class had so many applicants she couldn’t accept them all.

Purslane’s antioxidant content suggests it has medicinal properties — but it’s largely understudied in the United States. Eskew hopes that she and her students can answer some basic questions about it. What are the main differences between the gold and red varieties? Does one have a higher antioxidant concentration than the other? Does the growing environment impact their chemical composition?

Encouraging curiosity

Throughout the class, which first began in spring 2017, Eskew teaches standard chemistry techniques like extraction and ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy for identifying antioxidants in plants. Although every student learns how to perform these procedures, Eskew encourages each individual group to cultivate their own sets of questions and experiments.

“It’s about not having a recipe,” Eskew points out. “It’s about developing questions and going through the process of testing and modifying. And it’s also about iteration.”

In a traditional chemistry lab, students will complete one experiment and then move onto a different one in the following lab. But in this class, they’ll continue to run the same experiments three times or more, tweaking them each week. “In research, you don’t just do an experiment one time — you do it multiple times to try to improve it and see if you can reproduce results.”

To test the purslane for antioxidants, students perform a procedure involving a color shift that indicates when antioxidants are present. “Students can actually visualize what’s happening when the electrons are moving because they see a physical change in color,” Eskew says. “It makes the chemistry of it all more real.”

“The first time my team completed the test we were really excited — because the procedure worked,” Cooke explains. “It felt very gratifying and ebullient, and I think a lot of my group members shared that energy.”

Growing together

Before she developed the class, Eskew had never heard of purslane — until Claire Lorch pointed it out on a tour of the Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG), a program of the North Carolina Botanical Garden located on Wilson Street that donates all its produce to university housekeepers. Lorch, the CCCG program manager, solicits volunteers from across campus and the greater community to work in the garden year-round.

“I learned of purslane when my dear friend Vimala (of Vimala’s Curry Blossom Cafe) pointed out the plant and its nutritional value,” Lorch explains. “From then on we stopped weeding it and started planting it. Forty percent of the housekeepers are refugees from Burma and appreciate that we have purslane in the garden.”

APPLES research service-learning courseEskew’s partnership with the CCCG for the class means that it’s also one of the Carolina Center for Public Service’s APPLES courses, which connect academic learning with community service. Students enrolled in the course, held once a week, must spend a minimum of 30 hours volunteering in the garden — some of which is used for lab time.

Since completing the class last spring, Cooke, now Eskew’s teaching assistant, continues to dedicate her time to the garden each Sunday. “It’s a unique experience in that it’s inter-generational,” she says. “On campus, I don’t get the opportunity to interact with people who are in different stages of their life, but community members and grad students come to the garden. Gardening is a lot of work with your hands so there’s plenty of time to chat.”

Inspiring others

During her own undergraduate career at Carolina, Eskew — a first-generation college student — never knew about research opportunities until her adviser suggested she pursue it one summer. She didn’t have any family or friends who were chemists, nor did she understand what chemists did outside the academic environment. This meant graduate school wasn’t originally in the cards for her either, Eskew admits, but that same adviser encouraged her to apply.

“By the end of that summer doing research, I was hooked with discovery and learning something new — and realizing that other people had never made the compounds I did or seen their reactions,” she says. “That’s why I think this class is a great opportunity to give students a small introduction into what research is, especially for those who are first-generation or have never been exposed to research.”

“Dr. Eskew is a really special person here at Carolina,” Cooke adds. “It’s admirable that she put so much time into creating this class, and how dedicated she is to her students. I think getting research experience is one of the most important things during your undergraduate career. It’s changed the way I think. To be put in a setting where no one in the room really knows the answer — and it’s okay to not know the answer — that’s great.”

Nita Eskew is the director of undergraduate laboratories in the Department of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Service-Learning Course Development Grant recipient through the Carolina Center for Public Service. She is also an alumnus, having received both her bachelor’s and PhD degrees in chemistry at Carolina.

Madeline Cooke is a senior majoring in chemistry within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. She is also the teaching assistant for Eskew’s “Chemistry of Purslane” class.

Claire Lorch manages the Carolina Campus Community Garden, a program of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. To partner with Lorch or learn more about the garden, email her at clorch@email.unc.edu.

The Carolina Campus Community Garden makes use of volunteer support to provide UNC housekeepers with fresh, local, sustainably-grown produce for free. The garden strives to connect students, community members, UNC employees, and gardeners.