Alexander is studying distribution along the coast of wrack, or dead marsh grass. He hopes to get the work done more quickly and thoroughly with community input.
"The advantage is it puts a lot more eyes on the ground," he said. "We're trying to bring a large number of the interested public to bear on the subject. The more observations the better the overall conclusions will be."
Wrack is nothing new or unusual, though man-made structures may influence where it builds up. Like tree leaves, the stalks of marsh grass die in the winter. They break off and float around with the tides and winds.
Some of them are carried to the beach where they settle out at the high-tide line, finger-thick brown reeds children collect to decorate sand castles. Some float out to sea. And some, the portion Alexander is most interested in, build up in the marsh.
In 2007, wrack accumulated so much in some areas that it smothered living marsh beneath it. Alexander conducted a study then that concluded structures in the marsh such as docks can capture a thick mat of wrack, making it difficult for living marsh to bounce back from beneath it the next season.
In this study, Alexander is trying to document how long wrack persists in a variety of settings, such as in open marsh, along causeways, near docks and where the marsh naturally meets the upland.
"The fundamental goal is to try to see if wrack stays longer at causeways and docks than in natural settings," Alexander said.
To do that, he's enlisting the interested public to document sites where they've noticed that wrack piles up.
Those who sign up will be asked to photograph a site weekly through December. Alexander is hoping people will choose wrack-prone sites they routinely pass or live near, making it easy to meet that commitment.
"Weekly is really an ideal," he said. "If it's only every couple of weeks, that's fine."
Wilmington Island resident Betsy Cain was among the first people Alexander looked to recruit. Since 2007, she and her husband David Kaminsky have been documenting the marsh in front of their home with photos, some of them aerial. They believe that marsh became a wrack trap after their neighbor built a 980-foot long dock. They've stood chest-deep in the mud and cleared out acres of wrack by hand. With permission from the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they built a bamboo fence to divert wrack.
Cain is only too happy to share information with Alexander, in part because her opposition to her neighbor's dock was hampered by a lack of scientific study of the effects of long docks, she said. They had only their observations at the time.
"It was hard to act on because it was not backed up by scientific study," she said.
Plus, she likes the idea of citizen scientists.
"It's a real interesting development for inquiry," she said. "They use data provided by citizens engaged in their surroundings, and there are a lot of us around."