By Eric Wright
Bordered on the east by 72 miles of Atlantic coastline, on the west by the St. Johns River and split in the middle by the Indian River Lagoon, Brevard County is unique in that it enjoys more waterfront property than any county in the continental United States.
These waterways are a huge draw to the residents and visitors of the Space Coast. But, as with many things precious, these waters also are fragile and in need of our devoted stewardship and attention.
The Indian River Lagoon that renders our quality of life unparalleled and provides one of the most unique and diverse ecosystems in the world is a priceless work of nature’s art. Not only is our lagoon a natural wonder, supporting more than 4,300 species of plants and animals, but it is also one of the primary economic generators for the Space Coast.
Unfortunately, it has suffered decades of neglect. However, Florida Tech faculty and students are leading the movement to better understand and protect its delicate balance.
The university’s Department of Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences has an impressive track record of combining a passion for understanding the complex ecosystems of the lagoon and ocean with a pragmatic, solution-oriented approach.
Nationally recognized as a thought leader who both studies and advocates for the lagoon while using it as a lab and classroom is assistant professor Toby Daly-Engel, Ph.D. Dr. Daly-Engel talks about the lagoon habitat and the subject she is internationally famous for, sharks, with the sort of wonder and excitement that a child might express when describing his/her first visit to Kennedy Space Center.
She explains that the areas that runs both along the coast of Cape Canaveral and the Indian River Lagoon are “nursery habitats” for certain shark species.
“Anywhere sharks are born and grow is critical habitat for that species,” she says. “Even though adult sharks are massive and roam far and wide, they come back to the nursery to birth. And remember, sharks—like mammals—get pregnant and have live births.”
It was the link between teaching and research that attracted Dr. Daly-Engel to Florida Tech.
“Ours is one of the few universities where undergraduate students get 12 credits for doing the kind of research that most institutions reserve for graduate students,” she says. “I’m not just teaching students; I’m training peers. That is why there are so many doors open to our graduates.”
A major part of understanding and maintaining the delicate balance that is endemic to our ocean and lagoon environments is how we, as people, are impacting them and how they are impacting us.
Associate professor Robert Weaver, Ph. D., studies and teaches about wave models to better understand and predict storm surges, coastal processes, shoreline design and port and harbor engineering.
This research has far-reaching implications, from the multibillion-dollar economic driver of Port Canaveral to anyone who lives by or visits our beaches.
An avid scuba diver, Dr. Weaver teaches a course on “surf engineering,” where part of the curriculum allows students to gather data while surfing on specially equipped surfboards.
“We connect all the engineering disciplines—mechanical, electrical, etc.—to the marine environment. This includes how weather systems interact with the coastline, both to beaches and structures, but also ship design and efficiency, and corrosion and biofoulant control (the undesirable accumulation of micro-organisms, plants, algae and animals on submerged structures). Imagine what that means not only to Naval preparedness, but to our cruise industry or even recreational boaters,” he says.
Weaver and his colleagues have a passion for breakthrough research on matters that impact us every day, while simultaneously preparing the talent who will meet the challenges and steward the resources of both nature and man.
While named for its aerospace roots, the Space Coast has become an incubator and generator of talent and technology that transcends the space industry. The “Space Coast Impacts” series highlights how our aerospace, marine, cyber and biomedical researchers continue to not only follow but also to lead our community on this profound trajectory.