“It’s kind of like forensics,” third-year graduate student Jeffrey Salacup GS said of his research into the environmental history of Narragansett Bay. An archetypal geologist — with a full beard, hiking boots and requisite fleece jacket — Salacup won a three-year, $111,000 fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency last April.
Salacup’s research focuses on surface temperature and changes in land use around the bay since the year 500. He analyzes sediment core samples for changes in chemical composition, which give clues about the temperature and nutrient cycles as well as the types of organic and inorganic matter that have run off into the bay.
Taking a sediment core sample is relatively straightforward, according to Salacup.
“Go out into the bay on a boat, take a tube, push it into the mud and you have a sediment core sample,” he said.
Salacup’s project, which aims to create the longest timeline of the bay’s history, is unique in that the chemical signatures he examines have never before been worked with outside an open-ocean setting.
His research is part of a broader effort spearheaded by Professor of Geological Sciences Warren Prell and Timothy Herbert, professor and chair of the Department of Geological Sciences, to reconstruct how the bay has responded to climate and social changes over the past centuries. Prell has been studying the bay for decades, and Herbert, who is also Salacup’s primary research adviser, has extensive background in open-ocean sediment core sample analyses, according to Salacup.
“These sediment core samples are the basis for a wide variety of graduate and undergraduate research,” Prell said.
Prell himself is using the core samples to form a history of the productivity of the bay over the last 500 years and was the recent recipient of the Rhode Island Sea Grant. Both the Sea Grant and the EPA fellowship provide the funds necessary to collect the core samples, measure their different layers and perform chemical analyses.
Despite the innovative nature of Salacup’s research, he has already seen success. After only a year and a half of work, he has been able to reconstruct the bay’s environmental history up to the point immediately before the arrival of Europeans.
Salacup said he looks forward to addressing his own misconceptions about the effect Europeans had on the bay. He also hopes that by describing the bay’s characteristics at warm periods in the past, his research will be able to inform speculation about how the bay might look in 50 years and help bay-dependent industries plan for the future.
“How did the Native Americans really treat the bay, in comparison to how Europeans treated it?” Salacup asked. “This work is essential in order to place today’s bay into the framework of history.”