Coastal Ecosystems Adaptation and Resilience to Environmental Change


Alyssa Novak abnovak@bu.edu CAS 127B


Zoe Hughes zoeh@bu.edu CAS 334J

Teaching Fellow

Matthew Weiser, mwweiser@bu.edu, CAS 432

Classroom: BRB 115 or computer lab (CAS 435 or as advised).

Course Overview

Coastal ecosystems are among the most dynamic and complex collections of physical and biological systems on Earth. They are highly productive, highly valued, and highly accessible, making them a natural intersection between the human and natural worlds. This course will focus on saltmarsh, seagrass, and intertidal mudflats of New England. Topics for each ecosystem will include: biology, ecology, and geology; key flora and fauna; ecological and economic importance; natural and anthropogenic threats; and strategies to protect, restore, enhance, and assess the resilience of these coastal ecosystems to a rapidly changing environment. In addition to attending lectures, students will explore and gain proficiency in various research and assessment methods through classroom exercises, as well as field and lab work. They will also be required to carry out a research project that involves fieldwork, lab work, data analyses, and a final report and presentation.

Through this course, students will gain:

  • An understanding of the socioeconomic and ecological values of each ecosystem;
  • An understanding of major natural, anthropogenic, and climate related threats to each ecosystem;
  • An understanding of the autonomous and managed methods that promote adaptation and resilience to associated threats;
  • Experience using various methods to monitor and assess the impacts of anthropogenic and climate related stressors to each ecosystem, including: water quality surveys, quantitative field vegetation survey approaches (transect/quadrat, point intercept), sediment cores, habitat mapping with corrected GPS and real-time-kinematic (RTK), and plant and animal identification approaches and collection techniques;
  • An understanding and experience with seagrass restoration methods;
  • Improved field, lab, written, and oral skills.


Admission to the Marine Semester

Hub Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of four courses in the Marine Semester, you will gain one Hub unit in each of the following areas:

  • Scientific Inquiry II
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Oral & Signed Communication
  • Teamwork and Collaboration.

Individual Hub units are not attached to each course, but are instead assigned to a zero-credit course that all Marine Semester undergraduates will be registered for.

Scientific Inquiry II

  • Students will apply principles and methods from the natural sciences based on collecting new or analyzing existing data in order to answer questions and/or solve problems. This will include formulating hypotheses, gathering empirical evidence, analyzing and interpreting data.
  • Student will use their knowledge of natural science and will engage with issues of climate change.


  • Students will demonstrate understanding of creativity as a learnable, iterative process of imagining new possibilities that involves risk-taking, use of multiple strategies, and reconceiving in response to feedback, and will be able to identify individual and institutional factors that promote and inhibit creativity. This learning outcome will be accomplished via the development of unique research projects.
  • Students will be able to exercise their own potential for engaging in creative activity by conceiving and executing original work either alone or as part of a team.

Oral and/or Signed Communication

  • Students will be able to develop and deliver responsible, considered, and well-structured oral presentation of their research at the end of the course.
  • Students will participate in class discussions.


  • Students will work in teams to develop projects. As a result of explicit training in teamwork and sustained experiences of collaborating with others, students will be able to identify the characteristics of a well-functioning team.
  • Students will demonstrate an ability to use the tools and strategies of working successfully with a diverse group, such as assigning roles and responsibilities, giving and receiving feedback, and engaging in meaningful group reflection that inspires collective ownership of results.

Course Structure

The course includes lectures, reading assignments and discussions, field and laboratory work, data analysis, writing, oral presentations, and a final exam.


A series of lectures will be given during the first three weeks of the course by both professors in order to familiarize students with the coastal environment and the associated communities.

Readings and Discussion

Students will be required to read and discuss published manuscripts and texts, which will be selected by the professors. Students will also be expected to participate actively in the discussions, ask questions and critically analyze the research.

Example publications:

  • Blake, R. E., & Duffy, J. E. (2010). Grazer diversity affects resistance to multiple stressors in an experimental seagrass ecosystem. Oikos, 119(10), 1625–1635.
  • Harley, C. D. G., Hughes, A. R., Hultgren, K. M., Miner, B. G., Sorte, C. J. B., Thornber, C. S., & Williams, S. L. (2006). The impacts of climate change in coastal marine systems. Ecology Letters, 9(2), 228–241.
  • Martinez, A.J. (2011). Marine Life of the North Atlantic: Canada to Cape Mar. Aqua Quest Publications. 1736.
  • Novak A.B., Plaisted H.K., Hays, C.G., & Hughes R. A. (2017). Limited effects of source population identity and number on seagrass transplant performance. Peer J: e2972.
  • Short, F.T. & Coles, R. (2002). Global Seagrass Research Methods. Aquaculture. 212.
  • Silliman, B.R., Grosholz E., & Bertness, M.D. (2009). Human Impacts on Salt Marsh Ecosystems: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. University of California Press.

Field/Lab Research Methods and Final Project

Field, lab, and class room exercises will be used to teach various research and assessment methods. For the research project, students will be required to work in groups (2-3 students) to design and implement a small-scale project that generates new data and information on trends and conditions and/or applies a new or innovative approach to enhance/assess the resilience of the Great Marsh system to natural and anthropogenic threats, including climate change. Students will be required to write a proposal, present and discuss their project in a 30-min presentation. Each student will also be required to present and discuss their project in a report using literature to put their research into greater scientific context. The professors will provide guidance on how to make their oral presentations, and written report more effective.

Final Exam

A final exam will be given on the last day that will test the understanding of the concepts discussed throughout the course.

Class Schedule

During the first two weeks, students will participate in lectures, classroom discussions, as well as learn research and assessment methods through classroom exercises and lab/field work. In the first week students will select and prepare a proposal on an independent research project. The second and third week, students will travel and collect data for their project. During the last week, students will spend time analyzing data, working on their research report and presentation, and preparing for their final exam.

Detailed List of Topics

Introduction and ecology, biology, and geology of coastal ecosystems

  • 1. Saltmarsh
  • 2. Seagrass
  • 3. Intertidal mudflats

Ecological/Socioeconomic Values

  • Water Quality/Clarity
  • Stabilize sediments
  • Reduce Wave Energy/Storm surge
  • Nursery
  • Carbon Sequestration
  • Tourism and recreation

Influence of Humans and Climate:

  • Eutrophication/Pollution/Microplastics
  • Land Reclamation
  • Invasive Species (green crabs)
  • Sea-Level Rise
  • Warming/Ocean acidification
  • Increased Storminess
  • Changes in precipitation (droughts and floods)
  • Encroachment of infrastructure (development on barrier islands, roads through marshes, culverts)
  • Tourism and Recreation (navigation, destruction of dunes)

Resilience and Adaption of Ecosystems to the Changing Environment

1. Autonomous adaptation methods (ecological or human).

  • Acclimatization: changes in physiology or life history toward phenotypes which can persist under changed conditions;
  • Adaptation: natural selection of genotypes which can persist under changed conditions;
  • Epigenetic interactions: changes in the function and expression of genes that are not explained at the level of DNA but which enable organisms to persist under changed conditions;
  • Geographic range shifts: migration into areas with appropriate conditions.

2. Managed (Human)

  • Minimization of existing non-climatic threats (e.g. invasive species);
  • Hard-engineering approaches (e.g. sea walls, groynes, armouring etc.);
  • Soft-engineering approaches (e.g. removing hard-engineering structures, revegetation, beach;
  • Nourishment and drainage;
  • Ecological engineering (i.e. retrofitting hard engineering structures or introducing new structures to create artificial habitats);
  • Ecosystem engineering (i.e. introduction of species which play a key role in shaping ecosystems structure and function-oysters);
  • Regulation: what laws exist to protect these environments and what organizations enforce them?

Research Methods: Field and Lab Work, and Data Collection


Report and Presentations


Students will be evaluated based on their performance during lectures and discussions, on the content and quality of their proposal, final report and oral presentation. Students will also be evaluated based on a final exam during the last week of the course. No late work will be accepted. More than 3 missed classes will result in a withdrawal from the class.

Rubric Summary

• Participation and discussion: 25%

• Final research project

  • Proposal: 10%
  • Report: 30%Oral
  • presentation: 15%

• Final Exam: 20%

Because of the unique nature of the Marine Semester where each day represents about one week in a traditional semester, students who miss" three or more "days of class will miss significant course content and will be encouraged to consider withdrawing.

Grade Scale

Academic Conduct

It is each student's responsibility to know and understand the provisions of the Academic Conduct Code at Boston University.

The Code is available online at https://www.bu.edu/academics/policies/academic-conduct-code/.

Cases of suspected misconduct will be referred to the Dean of the College. If the Dean's office comes to the conclusion that cheating or plagiarism has occurred, a grade of zero will be awarded for the assignment in question.

Generative AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) language models, such as ChatGPT, may be used to gather ideas for writing essays and assignments, for helping refine code and to search for helpful material - but only with appropriate citation and an appendix of the interactions, and it may not be used for exams. If you are in doubt as to whether you are using AI language models appropriately in this course, we encourage you to discuss your situation with one of the instructors. An example of how to cite AI language models is available at https://libguides.slcc.edu/ChatGPT/Citations. You are responsible for fact-checking statements composed by any generative AI.

Diversity Statements

In this class, we are seriously committed to supporting diversity and inclusion among all classroom community members. We proactively strive to construct a safe and inclusive environment by respecting each other’s dignity and privacy. We treat one another fairly and honor each member’s experiences, beliefs, perspectives, abilities, and backgrounds, regardless of race, religion, language, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identification, ability status, socio-economic status, national identity, or any other identity markers. Bullying, hateful ideas, violent language, belittling, racial slurs, and other disrespectful or “othering” language or behavior will not be tolerated.

Our class provides a safe space for free inquiry and open exchange of ideas. Difficult social issues will be confronted, and controversial ideas will be exchanged. We recognize the power and promise of language and yet are cognizant that language might be used to exclude or hurt rather than express or inform. Therefore, though we might feel strongly about a topic, we maintain respect for each other’s diversity. We act and communicate respectfully toward one another, both directly and indirectly, both inside and outside the classroom.

We value curious, open-minded inquiry, and we critically engage with ideas in diverse texts to learn about perspectives diverging from our own; this enhances our existing understandings and enriches our lives. Writing to communicate necessitates an inclusive relationship with a reader, and in this class, we are accountable for our messages and committed to caring for our reader’s understanding of these messages. While at times it is appropriate to share our beliefs and opinions, we are committed to informing those beliefs and opinions through intentional inquiry and evidence-based thinking. All members contribute to building a caring, inclusive learning environment that promotes productive participation and sharing, and engenders growth among us all. As a classroom community, we share these values.

If you ever have any concerns about the classroom climate, please reach out to me

Land acknowledgment

We acknowledge that the territory on which Boston University stands is that of The Massachusett, Wampanoag and Nipmuc People. Our classroom and BU’s campus are places to honor and respect the history and continued efforts of the Native and Indigenous communities of Eastern Massachusetts and the surrounding region. This statement is one small step in acknowledging the history that brought us to reside on the land and to help us seek an understanding of our place within that history. Ownership of land is itself a colonial concept; many tribes had seasonal relationships with the land we currently inhabit. Today, Boston is still home to indigenous peoples, including the Massachusett of Ponkapoag, the Praying Indians of Natick (Massachusett-Nipmuc), the Mashpee Wampanoag, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and tribes of the Nipmuc Nation. For more information, please visit the North American Indian Center of Boston and the Commission on Indian Affairs of the State of Massachusetts.