Anchoring Communities

Lindsay Dubbs conducts research in the Outer Banks to protect marine ecosystems.

Lindsay Dubbs
Lindsay Dubbs is the director of the Outer Banks Field Site and a research associate professor within the UNC Institute for the Environment. (photo by Megan Mendenhall)
June 20th, 2024

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Lindsay Dubbs loved being outside, connecting with nature, playing in the woods, and exploring nearby creeks. Aside from family vacations to the beach, she had few opportunities to interact with coastal environments, but enjoyed swimming and always had an interest in marine life.

Now a research associate professor at the UNC Institute for the Environment, Dubbs credits one of her high school science teachers with nurturing her love of biology, the environment, and specifically marine ecology.

“He would always come back from these fantastic diving trips and show us videos and photos from places like New England and Fiji,” Dubbs recalls. “When you’re a kid that grows up in a landlocked place, water has this allure. You just want to know more.”

Dubbs has spent the past 16 years doing just that. Based at the Coastal Studies Institute in the Outer Banks, she is a biogeochemist and ecosystems ecologist studying nutrient cycling — the exchange of organic and inorganic matter between living organisms and their environment — in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems.

She is also the director of UNC’s Outer Banks Field Site (OBXFS), a semester-long program focused on integrated coastal science and environmental policy for Carolina undergraduate students.

As part of the North Carolina Renewable Ocean Energy Program, her lab investigates how potential renewable energy installations could affect species and protected habitats, such as Sargassum, brown algae found in the Gulf Stream. They also seek to better understand this ecosystem, which is essential for successfully implementing renewable energy technologies.

“I want to do science to help with decision-making and to help us be better at balancing what we want from the environment and the functioning of the environment,” Dubbs says.

Waves of opportunity

In 2008, during the final year of her PhD program at Carolina, Dubbs ran out of funding. So, when a position opened to teach ecology at the OBXFS, she applied — and got the job.

She spent an entire year driving back and forth between the Outer Banks and the Triangle.

“I was teaching a couple times a week out here and then writing my dissertation back in Chapel Hill,” Dubbs shares.

After her first year of teaching at the field site, she was asked to return for the next semester. While she liked the area and the job, she had only intended to be there for one year. After defending her dissertation, she’d hoped to work at a development organization in Washington D.C.

“My personal success is not what’s important to me. It’s that I’m doing impactful work,” Dubbs explains. “And I did feel like the work here was impactful, and so, in the end, I decided to stay. And the opportunities just kept arising.”

She’s now the director of OBXFS and co-teaches the Capstone course, where students complete a group research project.

Dubbs helps select a topic relevant to locals, which they vet through the OBXFS Community Advisory Board, a group of community members who consult with students throughout the semester. At the end of each field site season, students compile their data into a digestible presentation for this group and engage in meaningful discussions about how to protect the people and ecosystems of the area.

“I see the Outer Banks as a place where students can learn to be stewards of their environment and also the community around them,” Dubbs says. “The tools that we teach and the way that we teach students to be observant of their surroundings helps them to become stewards elsewhere when they leave this place.”

a sargassum mat floating on water
Lindsay Dubbs (right) works on a boat
sea turtle swims in the Sargassum
Sargassum being measured
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Seaweed science

For her own work she studies Sargassum, a type of seaweed that spends its life floating offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, often transported from the Gulf of Mexico to the Sargasso Sea by the Gulf Stream. It floats on the ocean’s surface in large, sometimes mile-long masses called mats.

The unique microbial community within these mats creates rich nutrient conditions that support a diverse food web and provide habitat and breeding grounds for many animals, such as seabirds, young sea turtles, and other marine life.

As one of the world’s most powerful currents, the Gulf Stream has caught the attention of scientists looking for ways to harness its energy, especially in places where it flows close to shore like Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Since renewable ocean energy generation is still relatively new, scientists do not yet fully understand how these emerging technologies might impact ecosystems.

“I’m thinking about the potential implications and the trade-offs,” Dubbs says. “All these functions occur in this ecosystem. What is going to happen to them if we harness that energy?”

To address these concerns, Dubbs and her team have gathered extensive long-term observations on Sargassum for almost a decade.

 They have collected data on the seaweed itself, the organisms attached to it, and the organic matter they create. They’ve also recorded the gathering patterns of Sargassum and monitored the plankton that live in and outside of the mats.

 Collecting this data is challenging, especially since they don’t often know when the mats are present in the ocean.

When Dubbs began this work 10 years ago, she based the timing of the research cruises on satellite imagery from studies that indicated Sargassum was only present in the region during a very particular timeframe — typically late spring to early fall, depending on currents and wind.

After talking to charter boat captains and commercial fishermen, Dubbs learned that the seaweed appeared a lot more often than the satellite studies suggested.

Additionally, she was tasked with coordinating the team’s schedules to match up with a time they could safely navigate the inlet and conduct sampling with minimal wave interference. Once in the open ocean, the search for Sargassum would begin. Sometimes, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Coastal collaborations

Dubbs now works with The Albatross Fleet, a charter boat company based out of Cape Hatteras, to transport her and her team to the Gulf Stream.

“The nice thing about working with charter boats is they’re not just individual people. They’re a community,” she says. “And so they’re all out there, radioing each other. They call Sargassum ‘weed.’ And they’re like, ‘We’re out here looking for weed. We’ve got weed over here, big patches.’”

Even with the assistance of ship captains, Dubbs and her team can be on the water for as long as two or three hours trying to locate mats, and they often need to travel 15 to 25 miles offshore to reach them.

Once they return, they head to the lab to process their samples so that the organisms they collected don’t die. This can take a while, and they often don’t head home until sometime between 1 and 4 a.m.

While Dubbs doesn’t go on the cruises as often as she once did, she still enjoys introducing students to the area’s unique ecosystems and human communities along the coast.

“The Outer Banks is a special place because it’s just so beautiful,” she says, tears in her eyes. “It’s where I can link ecology with a community that continues to rely on natural resources for many different reasons. It’s the kind of place where I feel at home because of all those connections and where my work can take place and benefit from it.”