Scripps Student Spotlight: Austin Barnes

PhD student investigates coastal impacts of sea-level rise to help address climate-related issues in Hawai‘i

Born and raised in ‘Aiea, Hawai‘i, Austin Barnes is a third-year PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego studying coastal impacts of sea-level rise. He received his bachelor’s degree in astrophysics and chemistry from Harvard University. He moved back to Hawai‘i where he received his master's degree in ocean and resources engineering from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he also met his current advisor, coastal oceanographer, Mark Merrifield. At Scripps Oceanography, Barnes is in the Applied Ocean Sciences curricular group and the Coastal Processes Group. In fall 2023, Barnes also served as a delegate at COP28, the United Nations climate conference.


explorations now (en): Why did you choose to attend Scripps?
Austin Barnes (AB): I chose to attend Scripps Institution of Oceanography to work with Mark Merrifield and Janet Becker, whom I knew from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH) nearly a decade earlier. From my experiences working with many graduate students, it was clear that the advisor-advisee relationship was one of the most important aspects of graduate school, and I knew how wonderful Mark and Janet were. It also helped that my colleagues in coastal studies at UH, where I was working at the time, raved about Scripps and said, “If you have the chance to go, you should go!”


Coastal Processes Group members receiving ATV training at Black's Beach to participate in beach surveys with the field crew. Photo credit: Cassandra Henderson

en: What are you researching at Scripps?
AB: I am researching the coastal impacts of sea-level rise through different projects. One project focuses on how rising sea levels will affect wave transformation over a fringing coral reef in American Samoa, increasing flooding on the coastline. Another project focuses on the protection from coastal flooding afforded by beach nourishment (the process of placing additional sediment on an eroding beach) in Imperial Beach, Calif. The last project looks at how ocean variability affects the level of the shallow coastal groundwater aquifer in Imperial Beach, which has implications for compound flooding.


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?
AB: Like many at Scripps, I wanted to apply the science I was learning in school to issues that affect people directly, so working on climate-related research was a natural fit. My home state of Hawai‘i is grappling with issues from sea-level rise flooding, erosion, and social impacts. I wanted to learn from the best and take what I learned from Scripps back home to work on these issues. The intersections of climate science with world history, colonialism, injustices, and inequities have captured my attention, and I plan on focusing on these areas of the field.

Austin Barnes surveying Fort Hase beach on the Kāne‘ohe Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i. He is using a GPS push cart dolly designed by the Coastal Processes Group to measure beach erosion over the last decade.


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.
AB: Now that I am past the required classes and the qualification exam, most days are open-ended, and I work on either of the two remaining projects I hope to finish with my time at Scripps. One project involves collecting groundwater data from Imperial Beach every month, and on other days I work on processing that data and digging into the details to see if we can identify the drivers of variability in the groundwater table elevation.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?
AB: The most exciting part of my work is collecting data in the field. Our work often focuses on large waves and coastal flooding. So when we get out in the field to do beach surveys, take notes on flooded areas, or talk to stakeholders, more often than not we are on the beach witnessing changes in real-time.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
AB: There are too many mentors to mention for whom I have so much gratitude. At this moment, there is a whole team helping me both with my PhD and my future career, including Mark Merrifield, Janet Becker, Michele Okihiro, Bill O'Reilly, Adam Young, Bob Guza, and Chip Fletcher.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
AB: As students, we face the constant challenge of balancing our time between our research and living life outside of our work. The financial pressures of living in a place like San Diego on a graduate student salary exacerbate this and many other challenges.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?
AB: I hope to find a way back home to Hawai‘i to bring back the skills I've been taught at Scripps and apply them to very similar problems of sea-level rise impacts.

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