Experts seek ways to save Sugarloaf Island

It might be winter now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great time to be at the beach. That goes for tourists as well as ECU scientists, such as a group led by Hannah Sirianni, that’s studying erosion at Carteret County’s Sugarloaf Island.

Drone photograph of Sugarloaf Island

Drone photograph of Sugarloaf Island

Sirianni is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment who specializes in geographic information science and technology. She is leading a team of researchers and ECU graduate students in studying the erosion of Sugarloaf Island, a popular, undeveloped recreational beach off Morehead City’s downtown waterfront along the North Carolina coast.

“Sugarloaf Island is important to Morehead City because it provides a natural defense from severe storm impacts. Unfortunately, there are growing concerns over the island’s severe erosion problem,” Sirianni said.

Since 2014, the island’s shoreline has eroded about 10 feet a year and lost nearly 10,000 cubic meters of sand. It would take 800 average-sized dump trucks to hold the amount of sand lost from the 47-acre island. In 2022, the state allocated $2 million toward the island’s restoration.

“Sugarloaf Island is clearly disappearing at an alarming rate, and something needs to be done,” Sirianni said.

Her team includes a group of multidisciplinary scientists, engineers and administrators from ECU as well as leaders and representatives from local government, academia and business. The group is working together to design and implement a shoreline stabilization project that may include wave-attenuation devices, living shoreline oyster reefs and terrestrial/aquatic plantings.

Last summer, Sirianni’s coastal geography and terrain analysis lab used geospatial technologies, including GPS, the global navigation satellite system, modeling software and drones to map and monitor seasonal changes to the island.

Graduate students Michael Moody and Sarah Pettyjohn are applying the technological skills gained from the project toward their master’s degrees. Moody has helped design field protocols and conducted an initial drone survey of Sugarloaf Island in November 2022.

Pettyjohn, who found Sirianni’s lab website and Moody’s drone footage of Sugarloaf Island through an internet search, said Sirianni’s research is what attracted her to ECU. A graduate of the University of North Texas, she started her master’s degree in August and has made multiple trips to Sugarloaf Island.

“It personally excites me because it’s a combination of the skills I really enjoy doing (field work) and skills I wanted to learn more about (geospatial mapping),” Pettyjohn said.

Sirianni has published research from Sugarloaf Island as recently as the November 2022 issue of the journal Coasts.

– Lacey Gray