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Asbury Sallenger Jr., leader in research on sea level rise

Dr. Sallenger questioned the wisdom of constructing real estate close to the shore.

Michael C. Weimar/New York Timse/File 2009

Dr. Sallenger questioned the wisdom of constructing real estate close to the shore.

NEW YORK — Asbury H. Sallenger Jr. — a leader in the nation’s research on the causes and effects of sea level rise, storms, and other coastal hazards — collapsed and died Tuesday at his home in ­Oldsmar, Fla. He was 63.

His death was announced by the US Geological Survey, for which Dr. Sallenger had worked for ­decades, most recently from its center in St. Petersburg, Fla. No cause was given.

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Dr. Sallenger was the architect of the agency’s program on coastal and marine geology. Its coordinator, John Haines, called him ‘‘our most effective advocate’’ for the application of science to coastal policy.

Dr. Sallenger, known as Abby, had headed the USGS National Assessment of Coastal Change Hazards and led pioneering efforts to measure coastal topography before and after storms. The images that resulted offered striking evidence of storms’ power and also provided clues about why some buildings, beaches, and dunes survived, while others did not.

Like other coastal scientists, Dr. Sallenger questioned the wisdom of putting real estate developments and other infrastructure close to the beach, but unlike many of them, he was able to speak about that highly politicized issue diplomatically, as Orrin H. Pilkey, a coastal scientist at Duke University, put it.

Dr. Sallenger “did not come across as condescending or political,” said Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. ­“Abby was able to communicate risk and vulnerability to coastal communities in a way that made people listen.”

Marcia McNutt, director of the Geological Survey, said Dr. Sallenger’s death came ‘‘just as he was advis­ing on how to protect coastal communities in the post-Superstorm Sandy era.’’

Dr. Sallenger also devised a topographical classification system to assess storm hazards on barrier ­islands and helped start cooperative research efforts between coastal geologists and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Last summer, he and colleagues reported new evidence of accelerating sea level rise on the mid-Atlantic coast.

Asbury Hilliard Sallenger Jr. was born in Kitty Hawk, N.C. He grew up in Virginia and earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in geology and marine science at the University of Virginia, where he played varsity football. He leaves his wife, Delores; a son, Asbury III; and a daughter, Ashby.

After joining the geological survey, Dr. Sallenger worked briefly in the Bering Sea before moving to Louisiana, where his research focused on eroding marshes and barrier islands.

His interest in the Louisiana coast led him to research its history, particularly a hurricane that struck in 1856. The work led in 2009 to “Island in a Storm,” a book that blends geological history with the story of a young woman who survived the hurricane. The book also discusses what may lie ahead for the region as seas rise.

Young said the book shows that Dr. Sallenger could frame coastal hazards in human terms. “He would connect the hazards to real people,” he said.

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