Since its beginning in the 1950s, the University of Georgia Marine Institute has focused on critical problems of marsh ecology and the transport and fate of materials brought from the upland and marsh through the estuary and into the nearshore. It attempts to address the difficult process-oriented questions that define the mechanisms by which saltmarsh ecosystems maintain themselves. In doing so, the Marine Institute fosters an atmosphere of cooperative research, employing the expertise of UGA faculty and numerous visiting scientists, and offers facilities to researchers from across the U.S. and beyond who are trying to understand the basic processes controlling the health of this important ecosystem. In addition to a strong record of research, UGAMI serves from 50 to 60 groups of university students each year who hail from multiple institutions across Georgia and beyond. The Institute also hosts workshops, professional meetings, and outreach activities.
The UGA Marine Institute was established in summer 1953 when Professors E.P. Odum and D.C. Scott from the University of Georgia Department of Zoology were awarded a contract to establish “a biological research laboratory on Sapelo Island.” Initial funding came from what was then known as the Sapelo Island Agriculture and Forestry Foundation, which was founded by R.J. Reynolds. The core of the Institute was formerly part of a farm complex developed by Howard Coffin and then R.J. Reynolds, Jr., in the early 1930s. Most of the buildings, constructed of structural tabby with clay tile roofs, are considered historically significant. Families were housed in the apartments on the eastern side of the central quadrangle, and the existing dairy barn was gradually converted into laboratory space.
It is no exaggeration to state that the early research conducted at Sapelo Island had a major influence on the field of ecology in general and salt marsh ecology in particular. E.P. Odum literally wrote the textbook on ecology, and early research conducted with John Teal on salt marshes as detritus-based food webs that exported material to the coastal ocean inspired a generation of coastal wetland and estuarine scientists. The Marine Institute hosted the first international Salt Marsh Conference in March 1958, which brought together 55 participants from all over the world.
The scientific understanding generated by research conducted at the Marine Institute provided the Georgia state legislature with a solid scientific basis for drafting Georgia’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Act and Shoreline Protection Acts in 1970.These landmark pieces of legislation made a compelling case for the importance of protecting coastal marshlands and barrier islands, and became models used by other states and countries to conserve coastal wetlands. In December 1976, the area of the Duplin River was designated as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Sanctuary, the second in a series of what are now known as National Estuarine Research Reserves. This added an additional layer of protection to the marshes on Sapelo, and the Marine Institute is literally embedded within the boundaries of the Reserve.
Although the number of researchers varied, a procession of devoted scientists and their families shared the experience of living and working together on Sapelo over the years. Through the 1970s and 80s, UGAMI had as many as 10 resident scientists involved in studies ranging from barrier island geology to nutrient cycling in estuaries to salt marsh food webs (see collected reprints). Additionally, support staff, visiting researchers, and educational groups visited and worked on the island.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, UGAMI no longer had resident scientists, but visiting scientists and classes continued to travel to the island to conduct research and learn about coastal ecosystems. Of particular note, the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long-term Ecological Research Project (GCE LTER), supported by the National Science Foundation, begun in 2000 and continuing today, enables researchers to dig deeper into processes of the salt marsh ecosystem of the Georgia coast.
In 2003, UGAMI celebrated its 50th anniversary and the Friends of UGAMI group was founded.
Today, UGAMI is a thriving field station that combines ready access to coastal habitats with long-term data and a rich and deep scientific history, and a reputation as a leader in the study of estuaries and barrier islands. In 2014, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) visited as part of a “climate change road trip,” touring field sites where studies are being conducted to understand the role of wetlands in the global carbon cycle and then meeting with scientists, coastal managers and community leaders at UGAMI.
In 2015, PBS NewsHour produced a feature highlighting GCE LTER research on sea level rise, bringing national attention to Sapelo researchers’ study of saltwater intrusion into local waterways. Few remote laboratories have had such an impact on science and society.