Geoff Sanders ’94
Geoff Sanders ’94

Geoff Sanders ’94: In the Waters of Cape Cod

A career studying coastal ecology and salt marshes leads to an opportunity to study and preserve the resources of Cape Cod National Seashore.

When Geoff Sanders ’94 took a job researching sea-level rise at a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research center in Maryland, his boss could guarantee only three months of work.

“He told me, ‘I’ve applied for a grant and don’t know yet if I’ve gotten it. If I do get the grant, I can pay you for four years,’” Sanders recalls. “And I thought, why not give it a shot?”

At the time, in the late ‘90s, Sanders had been working at a law firm by day and studying for a master’s degree in environmental science at Johns Hopkins University by night. He was interested in environmental policy but also had really enjoyed the coastal wetlands restoration work he did in Texas as part of the AmeriCorps service program, right after he graduated from Scranton with a degree in biology. He enjoyed it enough that it was worth the risk to take this three-month gig at the USGS and get back to science research.

When the grant funding came through, those three months turned into four years with the USGS — and now 18 years and counting with the National Park Service as a field ecologist. Today, Sanders is the chief of Natural Resource Management and Science at the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, where he deals with everything from community issues to the effects of climate change.

A Love of Ecology

He discovered a love of ecology, the study of relationships between living organisms and their environment, at Scranton and zeroed in on marine biology and coastal work after taking a class with biology professor Michael Hardisky, Ph.D.

“I received a great grounding in the basic principles of science and how you approach addressing a research question at Scranton, but I think there’s a lot more to it,” Sanders said. “One of the biggest takeaways I had from Scranton was that you make all these lifelong connections and friends. That was equally as important to me as the education.”

One lifelong connection was his wife, Karen Washart Sanders ’94, a fellow biology major at Scranton. They and their three children are often out taking advantage of the natural beauty within the park where he works, including kayaking and paddle boarding.

When Sanders started working for the National Park Service, he was a data manager and biologist for parks in the National Capital Region, encompassing Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. Then he became a program manager, managing other scientists and technicians studying the quality and health of natural resources, such as water and forests, and reporting the data back to the parks.

From that first job at USGS to his graduate research and throughout his career with the National Park Service, Sanders has focused on coastal ecology, salt marshes and wetlands, so working on Cape Cod was a perfect fit. He took over his current role — managing the natural resources division — in 2019. He oversees anywhere from seven to 20 employees, depending on the season, but he’s not one to glorify the job and calls himself the “division paper pusher.”

But when he starts to talk about the science, the projects that help make change, his love of ecology shines through.

In the Field

Sanders gets out in the field some days, monitoring the park’s ponds, lakes, marshes and 43 miles of coastline. He also meets with members of the community and other local, state and federal agencies who have stakes in the park’s projects.

One of the unique challenges of the Cape Cod National Seashore is how intertwined the park is with the local communities on the Outer Cape from Chatham to Provincetown. One of their current projects is the largest salt marsh restoration project in New England and involves the replacement of a failing dike that is impacting tidal flow in and out of a major river system in the park.

The dike, built in the early 1900s, was meant to control water flow to help reduce the mosquito population, but it did not have the desired effect.

“We’ve learned a lot since then, and unfortunately the diking of the river system converted it from a salt marsh to a freshwater marsh,” Sanders said. “It’s not a natural ecosystem, and it’s not nearly as productive. Replacing the dike with a new bridge structure will restore tidal flow to the estuary and convert the system back to a salt marsh. We’re emphasizing the value of good science.”

The Future of the Seashore

With more than two decades working in ecology and natural resources, Sanders has seen the effects of climate change firsthand. In the past, as sea levels rose and fell naturally, salt marshes would grow at a similar rate. But that is no longer the case.

“That whole equilibrium is thrown out of whack when sea levels start rising for various reasons, whether it’s thermal expansion of the water or contribution from land-based glaciers like we’re seeing in Greenland or Antarctica,” Sanders said. “So then you get an imbalance where the water rises at a rate that marshes can’t necessarily keep up with. In addition, sea-level rise is leading to greater erosive forces on the beaches. We have had some storms that have resulted in the loss of 30 feet of dunes or bluffs”

Sanders and the other scientists at the Cape Cod National Seashore are running several studies to determine which areas in the park are at greater risk for erosion, as well as where the sediment is going as it erodes away from the beach. In some cases, these studies have led to parking lots or lighthouses being relocated further inland.

“These are some of the challenges the park faces with climate change, but it also presents us with the opportunity to learn about it,” he said. “What’s really cool about this job is you get to be involved in the research and the data side, and then you get to be involved in sharing what the data shows and figuring out how to address the problem.”

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