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Remembering Asbury "Abby" Sallenger—Architect of the USGS Coastal Program

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USGS scientist and renowned coastal-hazards expert Asbury "Abby" Sallenger, 63, died at home on the evening of February 5. He was a distinguished research scientist, a skilled communicator, and a mentor throughout his career. Seen as a leader in scientific response to coastal storms, Sallenger served as the voice of the USGS on hurricanes and coastal change since the USGS stood up its first scientific storm-response team in the mid-1990s.

"The untimely loss of any truly inspirational scientist is always a cause for mourning, but it is particularly difficult to lose this giant in coastal science just as he was advising on how to protect coastal communities in the post-Superstorm Sandy era," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "I can think of no better way to honor his legacy than to use science to build more resilient coastal communities in the face of changing climate."

Asbury "Abby" Sallenger, 1949–2013 Abby Sallenger (right) stands next to a street sign in Rodanthe, North Carolina, after Hurricane Dennis
Above Left: Asbury "Abby" Sallenger, 1949–2013. Photograph by Karen Morgan, USGS, taken October 15, 2008. [larger version]

Above Right: Abby Sallenger (right) stands next to a street sign in Rodanthe, North Carolina, after Hurricane Dennis in 1999. Wave overwash covered the road with sand as much as 1 meter (3 feet) thick. Photograph by Karen Morgan, USGS, taken September 8, 1999. [larger version]

Sallenger was a pioneer in recognizing the growing need for science to protect coastal communities from the hazards of coastal change. He envisioned a national coastal-research program that supported scientific excellence in response to societal needs.

"Abby's contributions to the USGS, to the Coastal and Marine Program, and to many of us personally cannot be briefly captured. He was the architect of our coastal program," said USGS scientist John Haines. "At the heart of our response to hurricanes, you'll find Abby's vision, Abby's science, and Abby's leadership. He insisted that science comes first," said Haines.

Abby Sallenger surveys the remains of a home along the shore in Waveland, Mississippi.
Above: Abby Sallenger surveys the remains of a home along the shore in Waveland, Mississippi. Storm surge and waves from Hurricane Katrina destroyed structures along the coast and left behind nothing but foundations. Photograph by Laura Fauver, USGS, taken October 25, 2005. [larger version]

Sallenger built the USGS coastal program around these values, through a tireless dedication to research and a talent for explaining complex science and why it mattered. He garnered support among fellow scientists and leaders in the USGS, partners in research, administration officials, on Capitol Hill, and with the public. His work with extreme-storm impacts on coasts and his skill in explaining them made him a sought-after expert by many. He was regularly interviewed and quoted by national news-media outlets, such as the New York Times, CNN, and The Weather Channel.

He was one of the first to recognize the value of lidar (light detection and ranging) to quickly map coastlines (for example, see Hurricane Sandy-Pre-Storm and Post-Storm 3D Lidar Topography: Fire Island, NY). Baseline surveys of much of the U.S. coast were completed in large measure from Sallenger's efforts and his ability to establish effective partnerships to share resources with other science agencies. He developed an experimental product to forecast coastal change prior to hurricane landfall, to inform the evacuation of barrier islands, emergency response, recovery, and future land management (see Updated Assessment of Potential Coastal-Change Impacts).

Sallenger led the USGS National Assessment of Coastal Change Hazards, which investigates how coasts change over the long term and during extreme storms. His recent research focused on Louisiana's barrier islands, where rapid land subsidence simulates the long-term sea-level rise that could impact the world's coasts in the next century. Last summer, Sallenger published research that the rate of sea-level rise has increased three or four times faster along much of the U.S. East Coast than globally (see Sea-Level Rise Accelerating on U.S. Atlantic Coast). He was recently named as a lead author on the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, publication expected in 2014.

Having written scientific papers for many years, Sallenger tried his hand at creative writing. His book, Island in a Storm, published in 2009, recounts the effects of a severe hurricane that destroyed one of Louisiana's barrier islands in the mid-1800s and tells the story of a young survivor.

Sallenger received many professional awards throughout his Federal career for his excellence in science, his communication skills, and his leadership.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Sea-Level Rise Accelerating on U.S. Atlantic Coast
Sept. / Oct. 2012
Hurricane and Coastal-Change Expert Abby Sallenger Wins USGS Shoemaker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Communication
December 2007

Related Web Sites
Hurricane Sandy, Pre-Storm and Post-Storm 3D Lidar Topography: Fire Island, NY
Hurricane Sandy, Updated Assessment of Potential Coastal-Change Impacts
National Assessment of Coastal Change Hazards
Preparations for the Fifth Assessment Report enter final stage

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cover story:
Water-Quality Dynamics in Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor Estuary

Hurricane Sandy Disrupts Estuary Study, Provides Additional Research Opportunities

USGS Scientists Collaborate in Coastal Groundwater Study

Tracking Pacific Walrus: Expedition to the Shrinking Chukchi Sea Ice

USGS Contributes to Success of St. Petersburg Science Festival

South Korean Geoscientists Visit the USGS in California

Strategic IODP Planning Workshop for Ultra-Deep Drilling into Arc Crust

Training to Use New Lidar Scanner

Staff Remembering Asbury "Abby" Sallenger

Research Vessel Named for Retired USGS Scientist

A Passion for Educational Outreach—Profile of Carol Reiss


Jan. / Feb. 2013 Publications

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