Science, Sustainability and a Bahamian Town Dump

Ah, spring break in the Bahamas. Sun. Sand. Palm trees. Snorkeling in coral reefs. Exploring limestone formations. Visiting the town dump.

What? Wait. The town dump?

Yes, Deep Creek Town Dump to be precise.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Brian Bodenbender has had a penchant for teaching and researching coastal geology in the Bahamas, and the weather there has nothing to do with it. It’s all about the rocks, the sea and sustainability for Bodenbender, who has led more than 70 students to the Caribbean nation over the years.

On his most recent trip during Hope’s spring break in March, the geology and environmental sciences professor took seven more geology and biology students to, and through, a Bahamian island for a course called “Geology, Biology, and Sustainability on Eleuthera Island, The Bahamas.”

At the Deep Creek Town Dump. (photo by Hope student Sandy Brookhouse)

Along with showing off the geological and biological features of Eleuthera Island, Bodenbender also teaches about how sustainability efforts are, or are not, successful in a remote place where dependence upon natural resources is obvious every minute of every day. Eleuthera’s main industry is tourism, but many of its residents also rely on fishing and some agriculture, mostly mixed crops on small plots, for their living.

On an island that is long (approximately 100 miles) and thin (six miles at its widest part), all 8,000 Eleutherans depend on having 90 percent of their food imported which results in 100 percent of the waste remaining on the island. Thus the stop at the town dump. What Eleutherans do with that waste is one of Bodenbender’s lessons. He feels it’s worth teaching in a place that is both a tropical paradise for tourists and also a permanent residence for thousands.

Emily O’Connor on Eleuthera’s limestone coast (photo by Kristen Godwin)

“One of the aspects of being on an island is that it is expensive to ship stuff onto it and it doesn’t pay at all to ship stuff off,” explains Bodenbender. “So the ways that they handle household waste is to take it to the dump, which is maybe an acre or so with signs saying, ‘Please dump at the back.’ So whatever trash is taken there is thrown in a pile and then about once a week, they come by and light a match to it.”

Open-air incineration in paradise is an issue in and of itself, but the students also learn that the composition of Eleuthera’s bedrock creates another problem when it comes to burning trash. Since the island is mostly composed of limestone with little topsoil, the porous nature of the ground means that rainwater percolates through the dump’s ashen toxins right down into the groundwater and that toxic tea eventually reaches the ocean.

Dr. Brian Bodenbender, center in tan hat, gives coastal geology lessons on Eleuthera Island. (photo by Sandy Brookhouse)

“So it’s quite obvious that this is not a great way to handle waste,” says Bodenbender, “and it’s not sustainable in the least. It’s an eye-opener for students and I hope it gives them a new regard for regulations. In this case there is a regulation, but that regulation is ‘Move this stuff to the back of the dump.’ That’s not a regulation that is going to protect the potential drinking water or protect the reefs that are offshore that may have toxins washing out into them. So it’s just a really, really stark contrast between life on an island nation and life in the U.S.”

Junior geology major Jacob Stid agrees and actually sees a connection between what he now knows of waste disposal on Eleuthera and waste disposal in the U.S. It’s not a favorable connection, though, for his home country.

“Here in the U.S, we think that because of our size and power that we are exempt from these problems. We are not as different as we perceive.”

“Over the course of this trip I came to the realization that, in a way, we live on our own island here in the United States,” says Stid, whose hometown is Mason, Michigan. “Let me break that down. On Eleuthera, resources are limited and care must be taken in every use of every resource including the disposal. Without such care, not only would resources deplete but also what remained would lie in ruin and contamination. Here in the U.S, we think that because of our size and power that we are exempt from these problems. We are not as different as we perceive. Although the effects occur more slowly, our neglect for how we use and dispose of our resources may even put us below Eleuthera from a sustainability standpoint.”

Bodenbender says Eleuthera is not without good sustainability efforts. And, he does show his students their successes, such as the making of biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil retrieved from cruise ships, as well as producing excess wind and solar energy that goes right back to the Bahamian government’s power grid. Those sustainability priorities are potential money-savers for the tiny island; waste disposal is anything but.

GES/BIOL 341 — Geology, Biology, and Sustainability — class in the Bahamas (photo by Hope student Kristen Godwin)

Prior to departing for their intensive spring break lessons on Eleuthera, students meet once a week with Bodenbender for this semester-long course to learn how to identify certain invertebrates and geological features they’d encounter on the island while there for eight days. Besides their sustainability excursions, the class also took day hikes in the island’s tropical forests and along its rocky coast, and went snorkeling to investigate coral reef degradation and rebirth.

“They were going to be seeing so much that is new, I wanted to teach them about these things (at Hope) before we entered the environment,” he says. “And it’s an environment that can be pretty harsh — with sharp rocks, even sharp plants and bugs if you’re not on a groomed beach. And we are not laying on the beach.”

On the road to the Island School. (photo by Jenni Fuller)

Bodenbender headquartered his class at the Island School in Deep Creek — a private secondary school on the island that also is home to graduate-level research — for both living and teaching accommodations. After each exhausting day out learning on the island, class members would debrief at the school and write in journals. Now back at Hope, each student is turning their journal into a field guide of Eleuthera as well as writing a reflective paper on sustainability.

“It deepened my knowledge of the complex factors involved in ecosystems anywhere and how one can be better understood by looking at the other.”

The show-off-blue water and sky of Eleuthera. (photo by Kristen Godwin)

For senior biology major Kristin Godwin, this course was an opportunity of a lifetime, and it deepened her understanding of the interdisciplinary scientific nature of the Bahamas. While she believes she’ll forever remember the indescribable, show-off-blue water and sky on Eleuthera, and that small fish that swam under her for protection as she snorkeled reef to reef, Godwin was also impressed by the complexities and challenges of sustainability in the Bahamas and at home.

“For me, the most important thing I learned was the relationship between biology and geology and their necessary balance within sustainability efforts,” says Godwin. “I was the only biology major on the trip, so I learned a lot about geology. And as I learned, I began to see the relationship between the two. It deepened my knowledge of the complex factors involved in ecosystems anywhere and how one can be better understood by looking at the other.”

Saving Sands for Time and Life

Just to the east, just beyond the beach and into the dunes is a place that Suzanne DeVries-Zimmerman likes best about the Lake Michigan shore. Fewer footprints can be seen there, but life is actually more abundant. The terrain is less flat but just as sandy. And once she and the four Hope geology students with whom she conducts research step their feet off the shoreline’s beaten path, they find rolling sanctuaries of beauty and biodiversity. For it is there, in the interdunal wetlands along the big lake’s coast, that DeVries-Zimmerman and her students have plans to help conserve sands for time and life.


It’s not a bad gig if you can get it, working at a beach in the summer. DZ, as her students affectionately call her, is quick to admit that. The scenery and commute never get old even with three pounds of sand in their shoes, or when the temperatures climb into infernal degrees. Walking into the interdunal wetlands of the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area — with permission from the local municipality and Land Conservancy of West Michigan — is quite a hike when laden down with research equipment, but “who wouldn’t want to spend a day here?” asks DeVries-Zimmerman, sweeping her right arm out over the landscape. “I covet this land,” she goes on to confess. But not as her own. DeVries-Zimmerman wants to maintain these areas for generations of plants and animals, insects and birds, as well as humans, to come.

The dune crew’s morning commute: Hiking into the interdunal wetlands of the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area.

“Our research aims to better understand how these interdunal systems work,” explains DeVries-Zimmerman, adjunct assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences. “They have not been well studied and they are ecosystems in danger in Michigan.  Where these areas can develop and thrive along the lakeshore is somewhat limited. But we find huge biodiversity in them and that is very valuable to us all, not just the plants and creatures who live there.”

Wind scours the sand to the water table, creating a depression where an interdunal wetland can form. Rising water levels in the big lake will fill the depression with water, allowing wetland species to grow (the dark green areas) while falling levels in the big lake dries up the water, creating more sand erosion and deepening the potential wetland pool.

Put in peril by development and the drastically changing water levels of Lake Michigan, the interdunal wetlands are needed for migrating birds and butterflies, and for winter residents such as the predatory snowy owl. Western chorus frogs love to sing their songs in them and the yellow-flowered St. John’s wort favors the edge of the area’s low-lying pools to “keep their feet wet.” The wind-scoured depressions grow numerous wetland plant species such as beak rush, ferns, swamp rose, blue vervain, and steeplebush. Marram, horsemint, puccoon and Pitcher’s thistle, the latter a native plant that can only be found in Great Lakes dunes, grow in the sands away from too much water. By conducting topographical and ecological surveys, DeVries-Zimmerman, senior Jennifer Fuller, junior Dane Peterson, senior Benjamin VanGorp and senior Alexandria Watts are finding out more about the hydrology of the wetlands, how those areas are affected by the fluctuating lake levels, and how, in turn, that impacts the communities of flora and fauna uniquely therein. That is this dune crew’s interdisciplinary mission and passion.

Senior Alex Watts, left, and Professor DeVries-Zimmerman check water levels within an interdunal pool.

“I find it fascinating how the dune species are so finely adapted to sections within the dune system,” says Watts. “Depending on the fluctuation of a couple centimeters, the plants have the ability to outline pools and ridges providing a pretty accurate picture of the topography of the area. I suppose there is almost something secretive or special that certain species can tell so much more than just being a green thing. They make me feel like a detective and you have to have a trained eye to see the clues.”

Professor Suzanne DeVries-Zimmerman ’82 has taught in the Department of Geological and Environmental Studies at Hope, her alma mater, since 1999.

Significant funding secured from the Michigan Space Grant Consortium, the Jacob Nyenhuis Summer Faculty-Student Collaborative Development Grants, the Ver Hey Geology Summer Research Fund, and the Joyce Fund for Environmental Research has given DeVries-Zimmerman, her students, and three other Hope professors studying the dunes — Dr. Edward Hansen, Dr. Brian Bodenbender, and Dr. Brian Yurk — ample opportunities to learn more about dunes and dune management, even in England and Wales. This summer, the group spent three weeks at Liverpool-Hope University and along England’s Sefton Coast and Wale’s northern coast, learning how the British manage their dunes while initiating collaborative dune research projects in the process.

Jenny Fuller levels a total station with Dane Peterson at the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area.

“The trip to England was a unique experience in that their dune management process has been far more involved in comparison to Michigan. There’s so many more factors at play in England’s dunes and interdunal wetlands,” Fuller points out. “Not only do they have the Atlantic Ocean seawater and weather to contend with, but a much longer history of human interactions. We met and worked with professors that have created methods of studying sand dune habitats, and their geomorphological movement throughout history using aerial imagery. They have already implemented ways of reopening dunes that have been over stabilized and established new management practices based on their findings. We left with many ideas, and perhaps even more questions about how the differences in our dune ecosystems will affect the way we need to take care of our dunes back home.”

Senior Ben VanGorp holds a surveying pole.

Each student appreciates their research with DeVries-Zimmerman for the impact it will have on their future as well as for the fun they having now. Of their prof, they proclaim to have found a mentor full of knowledge and joy for her work.

“The most interesting thing for me this summer has been all of the new techniques and methods that I have been able to engage with and use,” declares Peterson. “I’m learning how to use different computer programs for mapping and comparison; I learned how to set up and run a surveying station; and, I’ve learned how to use pole aerial photography to obtain the information that I want.”

Adds VanGorp, “The part I love most working with DZ is how incredibly smart she is while also still having a great sense of humor. There is never a boring day in the field with her.”

“The early (dune) management thinking was to stabilize dunes.  The thinking was the only good dune is a stable dune, but that’s not the right management model anymore.  We want some dunes to continue to migrate so ecological succession can occur.”

Having researched Lake Michigan dunes with her three aforementioned professorial colleagues for over a decade now, DeVries-Zimmerman says they are still finding out “how much we don’t know” about the dunes and wetlands. They do know, though, that dunes must be allowed to move — if even a little — in order for biodiversity to thrive. “The early (dune) management thinking was to stabilize dunes. The thinking was the only good dune is a stable dune, but that’s not the right management model anymore. We want some dunes to continue to migrate so ecological succession can continue to occur.”

So, the woman who has loved the wetlands and dunes since she was a small child growing up in Holland, Michigan, will continue to keep her eyes on the sand. The winds will blow, water will rise and fall, and the finest grains of earth will grow and sustain a delicate natural order. And as it all does, DZ will remain just offshore, both at Hope and along Lake Michigan, for the sake of her students’ education and the sustainability of ecosystems made possible by wet and moving dunes.