FAU Graduate Finding New Ways to Study Sea Level Rise

By kelsie weekes | 5/2/2018

Mosquitoes, alligators, crocodiles and pythons haven’t stopped Hannah Cooper from collecting important data on the impacts of sea level rise deep within the Florida Everglades. On Friday, May 4 at 5 p.m., her countless hours of intense field work will pay off when she graduates with her doctorate in geosciences from Florida Atlantic University.

Although Cooper, 37, was born in Ohio, she said she’s always had an interest in coastal environments. Her dad, an amateur paleontologist, has excavated trilobites and extinct sea creatures as long as she can remember.

“Since I was a baby I’ve been helping my dad dig up trilobites,” she said. “Even though Ohio is a landlocked state, you quickly realize that it wasn’t always landlocked.”

Cooper began taking classes in geographic information systems (GIS) at the University of Cincinatti, and then continued her studies in coastal geography at the University of Hawaii-Manoa (UHM) where she earned a bachelor and master’s degree. While at UHM, Cooper worked as a research assistant in the Hawaii Coastal Geology Group where she used GIS and remote sensing techniques to map the future impacts of sea level rise on Hawaiian wetlands.

In 2013, Cooper came across the work of Leonard Berry, Ph.D., the former director of the Center for Environmental Studies and coordinator of the Climate Change Initiative at FAU, as she began to reach doctoral programs.

“South Florida is a hot spot for sea level rise, and at the time, FAU was the only university using GIS and remote sensing to study its effects,” she said.

After joining FAU, Cooper quickly developed a passion for Florida Everglades restoration and preservation.  She worked to develop an innovative approach to the effectiveness of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, used to collect data on elevation in coastal environments. LiDAR data can be highly ineffective in areas with dense vegetation, so Cooper developed a ground-based survey system, requiring her to wade deep into the Everglades to get accurate elevation data.

“Elevation is critical to studying sea level rise,” she said. “It’s hard to know which areas are susceptible to sea level rise without accurate elevation data, especially natural environments like the Everglades.”

Despite a close encounter with a python and getting cut by sharp sawgrass, Cooper has been able to collect more than 500 elevation points in the Everglades, which can be used for better coastal vulnerability analysis. She recently received the 2017 Everglades Foundation Scholarship, which provided her $20,000 to support her research efforts.

Caiyun Zhang, Ph.D., an associate professor in FAU’s Department of Geosciences, said Cooper is always ready for the next challenge.

“As a student, Hannah is always looking for new knowledge, skills and techniques to be used in her research,” she said. “I admire her constant energy and passion.”

Following her graduation, Cooper will join the faculty in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at East Carolina University as a tenure-track assistant professor.

“People said I was crazy for leaving Hawaii to come to Florida, but I’m so glad I did,” she said. “FAU has provided me amazing opportunities.”