Norfolk Dredging gift helps VIMS make history

With more than 100 years of experience in deepening channels and replenishing beaches along the East and Gulf coasts, Norfolk Dredging Co. is familiar with unearthing historical objects from the seafloor—including fossil shark’s teeth and Civil War cannonballs.

Now, a major gift from the Chesapeake-based company will help researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science advance their own studies of seafloor history and ecology. VIMS will use the funds to purchase a high-tech device that can uncover a wealth of environmental data from seafloor sediment cores.

The instrument, a Geotek® core logger, will help VIMS scientists study past climates, seafloor erosion, and the bottom-dwelling communities that nurture marine food webs. The instrument will be housed in a named Norfolk Dredging laboratory within Andrews Hall, VIMS' new research building.

VIMS Dean and Director John Wells describes Norfolk Dredging’s gift as “a great example of a public-private partnership. "Andrews Hall was constructed through the bond for higher education passed by Virginia voters in 2002," says Wells. "Norfolk Dredging is now providing the corporate support we need to equip the building with modern research instruments, so that the taxpayer's investment bears full fruit."

Norfolk Dredging President Dudley Ware says the gift was a natural fit given his company's long history of marine-related enterprise. Says Ware, "Helping to advance environmental research at VIMS is a natural extension of our continuing efforts to meet society's commercial and transportation needs in an environmentally sound manner."

Dr. Jesse McNinch is one of several VIMS scientists who look forward to using the core logger in research. He describes the device as "an automated conveyor that moves a mounted core past a series of electronic instruments." These instruments can record a core's density, composition, and color, as well as more esoteric properties like magnetic susceptibility and electrical resistivity.

Dr. Steven Kuehl, another VIMS researcher with plans to use the device, adds that the core logger "will make routine analysis of sediment properties possible using non-destructive automated sensors that sample continuously."

VIMS scientists extract sediment cores from research sites around the world. Cores from the muddy bottom of Chesapeake Bay and the sandy shores of the Outer Banks are typically about 3 inches across and up to 6 feet long. They can preserve the environmental history of a site over thousands of years or more.

One of the core logger's first uses will be to study cores taken during Dr.Carl Friedrichs' "MUDBED" project (for Multidisciplinary Benthic Exchange Dynamics). The two-year endeavor, funded by the National Science Foundation, will use seafloor cores and other sampling techniques to shed light on the biological and physical processes that control how storm waves and tidal currents erode mud from the floor of Chesapeake Bay.

"Understanding mud erosion is important for a number of reasons," says Friedrichs. "When seafloor mud is stirred into the water, it reduces water clarity, which in turn harms seagrass beds. Organic pollutants like those in the Elizabeth River tend to bind with muddy sediments, so understanding mud erodability also helps us model how those pollutants might disperse through an ecosystem."

Further afield, McNinch plans to use the core logger to help detect evidence of prehistoric hurricanes within sediment cores from the Caribbean Island of Antigua. The heavy rains that accompany these storms wash sediments from inland mountains to coastal lagoons, where they are subsequently buried. Coring into the floor of these lagoons can reveal a long-term hurricane record that is of interest to both climate scientists and insurers.

Both projects will allow graduate students in the College of William and Mary's School of Marine Science at VIMS to gain experience with the latest in research equipment and techniques.

Norfolk Dredging Company has been a leader in hydraulic and clamshell dredging since 1899, with specialties in maintenance, new work, beach replenishment, tunnel excavation, and sub-aqeous trenching. Major areas of operation span the navigable waters of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States.

Norfolk Dredging's gift was made to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Foundation, a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization that supports the education and research missions of VIMS. VIMS is an independent state agency with a mandate to provide research, education, and advisory service to the Commonwealth. The School of Marine Science at VIMS is a graduate school of the College of William and Mary.