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Global Change Program

Rockets, Labradors, and Lowcountry Shrimp

October 27, 2021

By Alex Ip

Alex Ip was an Intern for the Smart Sea Level Sensors Program during the summer of 2021.

Across from the Kilkenny marina are miles and miles of regularly swamped marshes. Sea level along coastal Georgia rises by approximately three millimeters each year; it is projected that by the end of the century, parts of the land on which Kilkenny stands will be consumed by brackish marshes. (Alex Ip)

If you stand on top of the marinas of Kilkenny, Georgia, and squint beyond the dolphins, over the black soil and green grass, past new leaves nudging through those of last year, across Coastal Georgia’s Sea Islands — Wassaw, Ossabaw, St. Catherines, and Sapelo — you may catch a spaceship sailing through the mellow Atlantic dawn.

Ron Sattele, a longtime resident of Kilkenny, showed me a video he took with his smartphone, back when the SpaceX Crew Dragon was catapulted from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station in April: the Falcon 9 rocket started off tracing a gentle arc from the bottom right of the screen to the center. The first stage detached midway, forming a hump-shaped vapor trail as it landed vertically on a designated site. 

The historic launch was in plain sight of coastal Georgians like him. Kilkenny is no longer a quaint seaside village, and it does not want to be, but there is much to learn about adapting, surviving, and maintaining its character in a rapidly changing world. 

A map hanging in Dr. Russ Clark’s residence showing Kilkenny, Ga. and its surroundings. Areas in yellow are inhabited land, while areas in green are uninhabitable or submerged land. (Alex Ip)

Meanwhile, in a marina next to Dr. Russ Clark and the Sattele’s homes, overlooking the soft glow of the Georgia coast, the entire Smart Sea Level Sensors (SSLS) team and their families were meeting face-to-face for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: Georgia Tech’s Clark, a senior research scientist in the School of Computer Science; Dr. Kim Cobb of the Global Change Program;  Dr. Emanuele “Manu” di Lorenzo of the Ocean Science and Engineering Program; Dr. Allen Hyde’s team at the School of History and Sociology; Randall Mathews of the Chatham Emergency Management Agency; Nick Deffley of the City of Savannah Government; a group of grad students, and the summer interns. There were plenty of reasons to celebrate: the project had grown significantly over the last year, and work by the team was helping CEMA make life-saving decisions. It was also Manu’s 50th birthday. Where better to celebrate the occasion than by having a supper gathering by the ocean?

The marina was also chosen to make a point: here, there is a deep, occasionally torturous connection between people, land, and sea. Kilkenny’s namesake estate was once one of the largest Sea Island cotton plantations in the state, enslaving hundreds of Black people. The mansion still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but now the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor extends through this landscape, a National Heritage Area recognizing the unique creole culture of the Lowcountry. 

Kilkenny resident Ron Sattele, or as the kids call him,“Papa Ron”, grasps the massive pot of Lowcountry boil and lines its contents in a trough, complete with baguettes, sliced lemons, hot butter dip, and cocktail sauce. (Alex Ip)

When you visit the Low Country you should expect to get your hands dirty. 

The Lowcountry boil, or what locals on the other side of the Savannah River prefer to call “Frogmore Stew”, is deceptively simple: Corn on the cob, baubles of yellow onions, red potatoes, sausages and shelled shrimp are thrown together into a big metal pot and boiled with brine. It was born out of necessity — enslaved Gullah people at Kilkenny’s plantations made one-pot meals with seafood and vegetables available, serving large groups of people, especially during times of celebration. The tradition passed on to their free Gullah Geechee descendants, and also to white residents in the region.

Yes, there are grocery stores within 15 minutes’ drive, but the sheer productivity of the soils and the seas here even attracted Henry Ford himself. The industrialist carried out agricultural experimentation in the 1930s, built a winter home nearby, and even invested in the local oyster enterprise. The freshness of the shrimp harvested by local fisherpeople is second to none. The ocean here tastes different from the rest of the Eastern Seaboard and you cannot convince me otherwise. Pair that with a classic apéritif or sparkling water (Manu is Italian), and you have the recipe for a feast. 

Before the feast started, Russ cleared his throat, gathered the group together at the lower level of the marina, and pointed towards a large wooden piling right next to a ramp.  Somebody brought their labradors to the marina, and the water surrounding the deck made the dogs extremely nervous, and for good reason.

The high water mark formed on the wooden piling after Hurricane Irma reminds residents of the day they realized they had to do something — anything– to protect Kilkenny. (Alex Ip)

Etched on the middle was a single horizontal brown mark: in 2017, Hurricane Irma coincided with a king tide, resulting in a storm surges up to four feet above high tide. Clark’s house is located just two feet above sea level; as a result, water flooded the crawl space under their first floor, destroying the wood underneath. Dead fiddler crabs, which had been swept underneath during the storm, brought a sickening post-hurricane stench. 

Lowcountry boil purists refuse to add Old Bay seasoning, in contrast to seafood boils along the Gulf Coast and the Mid-Atlantic regions (Alex Ip)

There were no weather-related shenanigans today though, so everyone had an eventful toast (a running joke in the Sattele family was a spring-loaded rubber snake tied to one of the coolers, scaring unsuspecting visitors hoping to grab a drink) and started digging through the massive mountain of food at hand.

As the team finished up the Lowcountry boil and started divvying up healthy helpings of home-baked peach cobbler and ice cream, Gerri Sattele, known as Grandma Gerri to Russ’s kids, led us through their mansion. Built in the 1820’s, the timber used to construct the estate must have come from trees that were alive during the colonial era. A single layer of wood boarding supports the entire structure; Grandma Gerri told the interns to place one hand on each side of a wall and knock on the wood: the original structure is still intact, proof of Antebellum ingenuity.

Rows and rows of photos of each child and grandchild of the family, arranged by year and their names engraved on the frames, were lined up across the walls. A confusing array of corridors connected rooms that appeared to be frozen in time — according to Grandma Gerri’s account, as she got more advanced in age, she retreated to one of the larger rooms, where she had access to one of the largest walk-in closets I’ve ever seen in my life.

Many of the historic estates had actually been built further upland but were later relocated closer to the shore. Perched on top of the balcony, you could see a private swimming pool, the marina, the pilings, the yachts, and grass, lots of it. All of this will be gone by 2100, according to a projection by the NOAA: Kilkenny will be consumed by marshes, even under an intermediate scenario of sea level rise. That’s not even considering the impacts of king tides and storm surges.

In the likely scenario of a three-foot sea level rise, most of Kilkenny is projected to become brackish marsh (purple) or saltwater marsh (dark purple) by 2100. The IPCC projects that in a “low-likelihood, high-impact storyline including ice sheet instability processes”, sea levels could rise by more than five feet.  (NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer)

Responding to inundation events, like blue sky flooding, can be a matter of life and death, but flooding can be unpredictable, even for emergency response teams. The Smart Sea Level Sensors team is installing small stationary sensors in vulnerable areas. The sensors, roughly the size of a shoebox, send water level readings to a central database. One goal? An online map where emergency responders and community members can access real-time maps showing vulnerable or flooded areas.  

Although many of the sensors are installed near Savannah, the burgeoning network (which now includes over 50 sensors) is expanding beyond Savannah-Chatham County to ensure that rural Coastal Georgia is also protected. By the time a sensor was installed at Sapelo Island in McIntosh County, home to Hog Hammock, the last extant Gullah Geechee community,  Clark was eager to bring the project home to Kilkenny.

Dashboard developed by the Smart Sea Level Sensors project and used by the Chatham Emergency Management Agency to  assess flood risk and assist recovery efforts (Courtesy of Chatham Emergency Management Agency)

On an early Wednesday morning before Hurricane Elsa, Clark installed a sea level sensor on the Kilkenny Marina. It also came with a new piece of equipment: a rain gauge, to be retroactively installed along with existing sensors after a round of testing. Unfortunately, a software update from the Internet of Things network the sensors run on sent the entire system to a halt during the critical 48 hours that Elsa swept through. 

Critical data points slipped through the cracks of the network infrastructure, but there was one lesson: the more one learns about nature, the more one is humbled and learns to work with it.

When I went back to Savannah in late July, Clark had been traveling in his MPV around the coast, upgrading each sensor. Now, in addition to running on gateways (a strong wireless network similar to Wi-Fi but powered by Bluetooth technology), sensors can also use a mobile network as a backup, ensuring that data goes to the hands of emergency planners and residents like the Satteles 24/7. 

It’s not rocket science: this will ensure Kilkenny, and hopefully hundreds of villages like it, can continue to host Lowcountry boils, or perhaps when the time is right, catch another spaceship sailing through the mellow Atlantic dawn

Rain gauge and sea level sensor installed at Kilkenny Marina (Courtesy of Russ Clark)

This story is supported by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, and the National Association of Science Writers.